Here's What It Looks Like When Ebola Fear Comes to the Heartland


When I opened the news on my phone Wednesday morning, I had no idea how close events playing out on an international stage would come to me.

"Ebola case diagnosed in second Texas nurse," I read. I was dismayed that infection control had not been working as well as expected at Texas Presbyterian Hospital, where patient Thomas E. Duncan had been treated prior to his death from the virus, but not completely surprised. Health care workers are frequently hit hard by Ebola.

What I didn't realize at the time was that the Texas nurse, Amber Vinson, had been practically in my backyard over the weekend.

The first report came Wednesday morning a bit before noon, noting that Vinson had flown on Frontier Airlines Flight 1143 between Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, and Cleveland, Ohio, arriving Friday in Cleveland and heading back Monday to Texas. She fell ill Tuesday after monitoring her temperature as required due to her contact with Duncan.

Mark Duncan/AP

It turns out the patient is an alumnus of Kent State, where I am a professor and epidemiologist. The nurse was staying with family in the area during her visit. Three of those exposed relatives are Kent State employees and were at work Tuesday, prior to learning of their relative's illness.

When news broke, the university immediately commenced an "all hands on deck" response. Kent State President Beverly Warren (who has only been on the job barely over 100 days) met with her advisory council and later with deans and department chairs. A notice was sent out to employees and students in the afternoon, notifying us that several employees had spent time with Vinson and that the nurse herself was not visibly ill during her trip and did not spend any time on campus. Warren also took to Twitter early afternoon to announce the Kent connection with latest Ebola case.

Warren also worked with Angela DeJulius, Kent State director of health services, to develop and spread information. DeJulius said the university is "coordinating with local public health authorities to ensure all precautions are taken." Even though it's extremely unlikely that any Ebola cases will be seen on campus, they've been working for months to be sure there is a response available just in case.

The three exposed employees, who were already off campus when news broke Wednesday, were told to stay home for the next 21 days and monitor their temperature twice daily — the outer limit of the incubation period of the virus.

Mark Duncan/AP

Reaction on campus has been mixed. There certainly is fear, both on campus in students and staff, and off campus from parents of Kent State students and community members, as Facebook comments demonstrate

The university has declined to disclose where on campus the employees work, which has angered some. Others are demanding that Kent State close down or suspend classes, cancel homecoming, which is this weekend, and extensively clean anywhere exposed employees may have been. A hotline has been set up for individuals with questions: (330) 346-4636.

Kent State senior Lindsey Guarnera wasn't overly frightened. 

"I was telling my coworkers to not panic, but to just be aware," she told me. Guarnera also noted that she was perplexed at Vinson's behavior: "I just can't figure out why she boarded that plane knowing that she was still at-risk." It should be noted that Vinson did contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and was seemingly approved to fly, but details are still unclear on who she spoke with and whether they knew of her connection to Duncan.

Senior Mallory Stevens worried about sources of information, particularly after rumors initially spread false information that Kent State employees had been quarantined. 

"Social media has been both a gift and a curse," she said. "Students are able to quickly research Ebola and learn its true means of transmission, but are also exposed to clickbait links that jump to conclusions and exaggerate its presence."

Unfortunately, the worst part of the situation has indeed been the news media. Radio stations suggested that Ebola would be spread far and wide around Kent and Cleveland, that the plane the patient flew on should have been nuked and never used again, baggage handlers at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport should be quarantined because "they may have touched her suitcase" and that everyone was at risk, no matter how tenuous their connection to the area and the patient. 

This simply is not true.

In the wider area, two elementary schools in the Cleveland suburb of Solon closed Thursday for fears of staff members possibly having contact with the patient. Those two schools and a third with a similar situation will be disinfected prior to re-opening — again, a waste of time and money given the biological impossibility of an exposed teacher being able to transmit the virus just a day or two after exposure.

Mark Duncan/AP

On campus, the student newspaper, the Daily Kent Stater, took a more measured view. An editorial published Wednesday noted that "the city health commissioner later told city council that there was little to no risk to the Kent community," and that rather than panicking over Ebola, the focus should be on the patient: "Vinson has a long road in front of her. As fellow humans — and Kent State Flashes — we hope that she receives the best care and recovers from this disease." On their Twitter account, they've linked stories to the hastag "#FactsNotFear."

Though there are mixed stories on whether the patient should have been classified as "having a fever" with a temperature of 99.5 ("symptomatic" for Ebola suggests a fever of 100.4 or higher), it remains unlikely that she was contagious during her time in Ohio or on her flight back to Dallas. Even close family members of Duncan's, who was clearly symptomatic for days prior to hospitalization, have not shown any Ebola symptoms. Their 21-day window will close Sunday.

In the end, we have two cases of Ebola now transmitted in the United States from eight patients who have been or are being treated here. Should it be zero? Yes. Might there be more? Yes. 

While community members are unlikely to fall ill, additional health care workers at Texas Presbyterian are still being monitored, and those who worked with Duncan in the first two days of his hospitalization appear to be at the highest risk for a possible exposure. Every worker at Emory and University of Nebraska Medical Center has been fine so far, despite caring for more patients.   

Here at Kent State, it is business as usual Thursday. Grad student Neeley Meyers didn't let the Ebola concerns change her plans. 

"I was planning to dress as a bat with Ebola for Halloween. I still will, and when people ask what I am, I get the opportunity to use my education from public health to spread facts, not fear," she said.