DALLAS, Texas — Kisha Bell walks into the Neighborhood Medical Center in Dallas complaining of abdominal pain. But she has a much more pressing concern weighing on her mind.
“Ebola — can you tell me, I guess, as far as like the symptoms?” she asks the doctor.
Ebola isn’t spreading across the United States, but anxiety about the virus certainly is.
The epicenter is Dallas, where the country’s first diagnosis and the first transmissions of Ebola were made.
Before this month, Dr. Martin McElya said he’s never been asked about Ebola. Now he’s fielding a wave of questions.
“I say, ‘You’re not going to get it from someone who sneezes across the room, or because you’re sharing an airspace,” McElya said. “It’s going to require more of an intimate contact, and people seem relieved by that fact.”
False alarms galore
But in the sky and on the ground, the fear persists.
And with the news Wednesday that a second health care worker tested positive for the virus at the Dallas hospital while tending to the now-deceased Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan, those fears are magnifying.
Five people with flu-like symptoms on a flight from Dubai to Boston were examined by workers in hazmat gear upon landing. It turns out none had the criteria for Ebola or had visited West Africa.
At Los Angeles International Airport, 40 firefighters responded to a plane from New York when a passenger had flu-like symptoms.
“It has turned out that there was some miscommunication,” Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Jaime Moore said. “This patient had been to the continent of Africa, but not near West Africa. As a matter of fact, it was South Africa.”
And a hoaxer wearing a mask in Los Angeles exited a city bus saying, “Don’t mess with me, I have Ebola.”
The bus driver was rushed to a hospital. And police began a manhunt.
On top of the false alarms, high-profile voices have spread misinformation about the disease.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal told the Marietta Daily Journal that the state’s public health commission told him that “water kills the Ebola virus” and that her advice was to “wash your hands.”
In fact, water alone does not kill Ebola. Chlorine and bleach do.
And singer Chris Brown suggested to his 13.7 million Twitter followers that the Ebola outbreak is intentional.
“I don’t know … But I think this Ebola epidemic is a form of population control,” he tweeted. “(Expletive) is getting crazy bruh.”
According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll, 65% of Americans are somewhat or very concerned about the possibility of a widespread Ebola epidemic in the United States.
Eleven beds for the entire country
But some worry is understandable.
Of the thousands of hospitals in the United States, only four have biocontainment units and years of preparation in handling highly infectious disease like Ebola.
But between those four hospitals, there are only about 19 beds in the specialized areas: 10 at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha; three at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta; three at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana; and an estimated three at National Institutes of Health in Maryland.
Even the count of 19 beds may be deceiving, CNN’s Drew Griffin said.
“The center director in Omaha says his staff could only realistically handle no more than two Ebola patients at a time,” Griffin said. “That’s because of the danger, the staffing and the waste removal necessary when you’re treating any Ebola patient.”
So that essentially means 11 beds for the entire country.
That, coupled with a slew of complaints from a nursing union, may seem troubling.
After nurse Nina Pham contracted Ebola while treating an Ebola patient, National Nurses United said there was no protocol in place on how to take care of such patients at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.
On Wednesday, Texas state health officials said a second health care worker at the same hospital has tested positive for Ebola.
Reasons to calm down
But in the end, it’s extremely difficult to get Ebola in the United States.
Unlike a cold or the flu, Ebola can’t be spread until an infected person shows symptoms. And transmission requires direct contact with that person’s bodily fluids.
Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell sought a temporary restraining order to block the disposal of incinerated waste from an Ebola patient’s personal items at a Louisiana landfill.
But it’s impossible to spread Ebola through anything that has been burned, infectious waste expert Dr. Gavin Macgregor-Skinner said.
“Incineration is going to kill the virus,” he said. “That virus is dead. Now it is not infectious, it has no risk — zero risk — to the environment, to people, to anyone.”
The United States is far better off than the three countries grappling the most with Ebola — Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — where thousands of people have died from the virus this year.
Despite fledgling protocols on Ebola at American hospitals, medical facilities are better in the U.S.
Remember the anthrax scare?
Yet this kind of anxiety isn’t new to the United States. Just take the anthrax scare from a decade ago.
“For a little while, people were freaking out about white powder, and that was costly,” risk communications expert Peter Sandman said.
“People don’t freak out about white powder anymore. They’re used to that risk, and they take it in stride. People will take this one in stride, too but it takes a while.”
A run on supplies
Back in Dallas, some medical supply stores have seen a spike in sales.
Jennifer Wilson of One Source Medical Solutions say the big sellers are the three Gs: goggles, gloves and isolation gown.
“Typically, we only have purchases from clinicians,” she said. “We have everyday people coming in, saying, ‘I just want to have them just in case.'”
At the Neighborhood Medical Center, McElya examines Bell.
“So, tell me. What makes the pain worse?”
“I think when I have something spicy,” she replies.
It turns out Bell doesn’t have Ebola. She’ll be getting tested for a possible gallbladder condition.