Looking back, Dallas Ebola crisis showed cost of fear, value of leadership

Source: Dallas News (reposted)  by 

In the midst of last year’s Ebola panic, a hazmat team was dispatched to DART’s White Rock Station in response to a sick person on the platform. Public fear spawned questions about the disease’s ramifications. - Dallas News/Andy Jacobsohn

In the midst of last year’s Ebola panic, a hazmat team was dispatched to DART’s White Rock Station in response to a sick person on the platform. Public fear spawned questions about the disease’s ramifications. – Dallas News/Andy Jacobsohn

Source: Dallas News (reposted)  by An out-of-date public service sign at a busy North Dallas intersection is one of few lingering reminders of the crisis that seized this city a year ago. It advises passers-by to “know the facts about Ebola” in startlingly graphic terms.

Be alert to such symptoms as headaches, fever or vomiting (“sometimes bloody”). Avoid contact with infected patients’ body fluids (these are precisely enumerated as “blood, vomit, pee, poop, spit, sweat, semen”). Yuck.

It was no time for squeamish euphemisms. Ebola was serious. It was frightening. And it was here.

In retrospect, it seems as distant as the days when “Fallout Shelter” signs offered refuge should Soviet nukes start raining from the skies, but in the fall of 2014, we were the modern-day version of a medieval plague village.

All of us, from high-powered executives down to earnest schoolchildren, learned an awful lot about infectious disease. We learned that the buffering protection of the two great oceanic moats sheltering the continent is gone, that the deadliest sickness on the globe is just a plane ride away.

We learned that comfortable assumptions about preparedness crumble to dust in the presence of real-time emergency, and that some scenarios can’t really be understood until they have been endured.

Most of all, we learned a lot about the chaotic, reason-eroding effects of pure, unharnessed panic. For a few dicey days last October, it sometimes seemed that Dallas was ground zero for the unhinging of our entire nation.

With the easy distance of hindsight, it’s easy to minimize how intensely frightened people were at the first and, to date, only Ebola outbreak in the United States. Dallas’ toll was one death and two infections — a tiny statistical mote compared with the annual ravages of cancer and murder, or even defenestration or cow attacks.

But the reaction, fueled by well-meant but dismaying bureaucratic bungling, populist mistrust of government officialdom, and lavish doses of Internet crazy talk, was a wildfire contagion.

“There was plenty of anxiety, but that does not cost us money,” said Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, after a Dallas Morning News review in August showed that the nuts-and-bolts cost of the crisis to Dallas-area taxpayers was about $825,000, some of which was mitigated by state reimbursements and private donations.

The cost of all that anxiety is harder to calculate. Economists estimate that in dollar terms, Dallas probably lost visitor revenue in the aftermath of the Ebola outbreak. And beyond that were the episodic eruptions of misguided panic that characterized Ebolaphobia.

A Hazmat crew was dispatched after a woman spat on a DART platform. An elementary school teacher in Maine was placed on three weeks’ leave after she attended a conference 10 miles from Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas, where the city’s only Ebola patients were confined.

A junior college in Corsicana began rejecting applicants from Nigeria. Port authorities in Mexico and Belize refused to allow a cruise ship to dock after learning that it carried a vacationing lab supervisor who worked at Presbyterian.

In Ebola panic elsewhere, blockades were set up and traffic halted after a carsick passenger barfed on a bus near the Pentagon. Parents at a Mississippi middle school pulled their kids out of class after learning that the principal had been to a funeral in Zambia — which is about the same distance from Africa’s Ebola hot zone as Dallas is from Seattle.

After I wrote a column suggesting that these fears were possibly overblown, a distraught caller left me an irate voice mail message.

“Why can’t you understand?” he demanded. “When will you get it through your head that they are lying to us?”

“They” — government health officials, epidemiologists, doctors — were not, by and large, lying, save some graceless waffling by overconfident federal authorities and a frantic subterfuge or two from Presbyterian, which was watching with horror as a public relations Scud missile exploded on its front lawn. “They” wanted Americans to grasp the known truth about the contagion, in all its literal poop-and-vomit medical factuality; “they” tried to talk sense over some of the doomsday theories that were floating around.

It was our good fortune, here in Dallas, to have leaders who withstood the crucible of crisis. County Judge Clay Jenkins and Rawlings — no matter how you feel about their positions on the workaday issues of the community — were calm, sensible and very visible throughout the monthlong ordeal.

Both men modeled compassion toward the family of poor Thomas Eric Duncan, Patient Zero, the Ebola-infected Liberian man who died Oct. 8. They were supportive of the two nurses who contracted the virus while caring for him. For the most part, they concealed their dismay as they realized the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not have a detailed action plan to swoop down and assume control of the situation — that a lot of it was up to them, and that they were going to have to wing it.

“By and large, we were successful. We were also lucky,” Jenkins later told Vanity Fairwriter Bryan Burrough, whose behind-the-scenes look at management of the crisis was published earlier this year. Rawlings told Burrough that, while he was “heartbroken” at Duncan’s death, he is proud that Dallas saw only that one fatality.

Luck and success were by no means a guarantee, not in those tense weeks when nobody knew whether the infection had been contained and the clock was still ticking on the quarantine period for people who had been exposed.

The terrifying advent of a crisis without precedent made a bad situation worse. Smart management helped us get through it.

When Ebola came to the U.S., it could have come anywhere. Bad-luck-of-the-draw brought it to Dallas. We were the test case, the first instance, the teachable moment for communities across the country.

On balance, Dallas could have done a lot worse. Dallas endured. We’re tough that way.

An out-of-date public service sign at a busy North Dallas intersection is one of few lingering reminders of the crisis that seized this city a year ago. It advises passers-by to “know the facts about Ebola” in startlingly graphic terms.

Be alert to such symptoms as headaches, fever or vomiting (“sometimes bloody”). Avoid contact with infected patients’ body fluids (these are precisely enumerated as “blood, vomit, pee, poop, spit, sweat, semen”). Yuck.

It was no time for squeamish euphemisms. Ebola was serious. It was frightening. And it was here.

In retrospect, it seems as distant as the days when “Fallout Shelter” signs offered refuge should Soviet nukes start raining from the skies, but in the fall of 2014, we were the modern-day version of a medieval plague village.

All of us, from high-powered executives down to earnest schoolchildren, learned an awful lot about infectious disease. We learned that the buffering protection of the two great oceanic moats sheltering the continent is gone, that the deadliest sickness on the globe is just a plane ride away.

We learned that comfortable assumptions about preparedness crumble to dust in the presence of real-time emergency, and that some scenarios can’t really be understood until they have been endured.

Most of all, we learned a lot about the chaotic, reason-eroding effects of pure, unharnessed panic. For a few dicey days last October, it sometimes seemed that Dallas was ground zero for the unhinging of our entire nation.

With the easy distance of hindsight, it’s easy to minimize how intensely frightened people were at the first and, to date, only Ebola outbreak in the United States. Dallas’ toll was one death and two infections — a tiny statistical mote compared with the annual ravages of cancer and murder, or even defenestration or cow attacks.

But the reaction, fueled by well-meant but dismaying bureaucratic bungling, populist mistrust of government officialdom, and lavish doses of Internet crazy talk, was a wildfire contagion.

“There was plenty of anxiety, but that does not cost us money,” said Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, after a Dallas Morning News review in August showed that the nuts-and-bolts cost of the crisis to Dallas-area taxpayers was about $825,000, some of which was mitigated by state reimbursements and private donations.

The cost of all that anxiety is harder to calculate. Economists estimate that in dollar terms, Dallas probably lost visitor revenue in the aftermath of the Ebola outbreak. And beyond that were the episodic eruptions of misguided panic that characterized Ebolaphobia.

A Hazmat crew was dispatched after a woman spat on a DART platform. An elementary school teacher in Maine was placed on three weeks’ leave after she attended a conference 10 miles from Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas, where the city’s only Ebola patients were confined.

A junior college in Corsicana began rejecting applicants from Nigeria. Port authorities in Mexico and Belize refused to allow a cruise ship to dock after learning that it carried a vacationing lab supervisor who worked at Presbyterian.

In Ebola panic elsewhere, blockades were set up and traffic halted after a carsick passenger barfed on a bus near the Pentagon. Parents at a Mississippi middle school pulled their kids out of class after learning that the principal had been to a funeral in Zambia — which is about the same distance from Africa’s Ebola hot zone as Dallas is from Seattle.

After I wrote a column suggesting that these fears were possibly overblown, a distraught caller left me an irate voice mail message.

“Why can’t you understand?” he demanded. “When will you get it through your head that they are lying to us?”

“They” — government health officials, epidemiologists, doctors — were not, by and large, lying, save some graceless waffling by overconfident federal authorities and a frantic subterfuge or two from Presbyterian, which was watching with horror as a public relations Scud missile exploded on its front lawn. “They” wanted Americans to grasp the known truth about the contagion, in all its literal poop-and-vomit medical factuality; “they” tried to talk sense over some of the doomsday theories that were floating around.

It was our good fortune, here in Dallas, to have leaders who withstood the crucible of crisis. County Judge Clay Jenkins and Rawlings — no matter how you feel about their positions on the workaday issues of the community — were calm, sensible and very visible throughout the monthlong ordeal.

Both men modeled compassion toward the family of poor Thomas Eric Duncan, Patient Zero, the Ebola-infected Liberian man who died Oct. 8. They were supportive of the two nurses who contracted the virus while caring for him. For the most part, they concealed their dismay as they realized the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not have a detailed action plan to swoop down and assume control of the situation — that a lot of it was up to them, and that they were going to have to wing it.

“By and large, we were successful. We were also lucky,” Jenkins later told Vanity Fairwriter Bryan Burrough, whose behind-the-scenes look at management of the crisis was published earlier this year. Rawlings told Burrough that, while he was “heartbroken” at Duncan’s death, he is proud that Dallas saw only that one fatality.

Luck and success were by no means a guarantee, not in those tense weeks when nobody knew whether the infection had been contained and the clock was still ticking on the quarantine period for people who had been exposed.

The terrifying advent of a crisis without precedent made a bad situation worse. Smart management helped us get through it.

When Ebola came to the U.S., it could have come anywhere. Bad-luck-of-the-draw brought it to Dallas. We were the test case, the first instance, the teachable moment for communities across the country.

On balance, Dallas could have done a lot worse. Dallas endured. We’re tough that way.

An out-of-date public service sign at a busy North Dallas intersection is one of few lingering reminders of the crisis that seized this city a year ago. It advises passers-by to “know the facts about Ebola” in startlingly graphic terms.

Be alert to such symptoms as headaches, fever or vomiting (“sometimes bloody”). Avoid contact with infected patients’ body fluids (these are precisely enumerated as “blood, vomit, pee, poop, spit, sweat, semen”). Yuck.

It was no time for squeamish euphemisms. Ebola was serious. It was frightening. And it was here.

In retrospect, it seems as distant as the days when “Fallout Shelter” signs offered refuge should Soviet nukes start raining from the skies, but in the fall of 2014, we were the modern-day version of a medieval plague village.

All of us, from high-powered executives down to earnest schoolchildren, learned an awful lot about infectious disease. We learned that the buffering protection of the two great oceanic moats sheltering the continent is gone, that the deadliest sickness on the globe is just a plane ride away.

We learned that comfortable assumptions about preparedness crumble to dust in the presence of real-time emergency, and that some scenarios can’t really be understood until they have been endured.

Most of all, we learned a lot about the chaotic, reason-eroding effects of pure, unharnessed panic. For a few dicey days last October, it sometimes seemed that Dallas was ground zero for the unhinging of our entire nation.

With the easy distance of hindsight, it’s easy to minimize how intensely frightened people were at the first and, to date, only Ebola outbreak in the United States. Dallas’ toll was one death and two infections — a tiny statistical mote compared with the annual ravages of cancer and murder, or even defenestration or cow attacks.

But the reaction, fueled by well-meant but dismaying bureaucratic bungling, populist mistrust of government officialdom, and lavish doses of Internet crazy talk, was a wildfire contagion.

“There was plenty of anxiety, but that does not cost us money,” said Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, after a Dallas Morning News review in August showed that the nuts-and-bolts cost of the crisis to Dallas-area taxpayers was about $825,000, some of which was mitigated by state reimbursements and private donations.

The cost of all that anxiety is harder to calculate. Economists estimate that in dollar terms, Dallas probably lost visitor revenue in the aftermath of the Ebola outbreak. And beyond that were the episodic eruptions of misguided panic that characterized Ebolaphobia.

A Hazmat crew was dispatched after a woman spat on a DART platform. An elementary school teacher in Maine was placed on three weeks’ leave after she attended a conference 10 miles from Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas, where the city’s only Ebola patients were confined.

A junior college in Corsicana began rejecting applicants from Nigeria. Port authorities in Mexico and Belize refused to allow a cruise ship to dock after learning that it carried a vacationing lab supervisor who worked at Presbyterian.

In Ebola panic elsewhere, blockades were set up and traffic halted after a carsick passenger barfed on a bus near the Pentagon. Parents at a Mississippi middle school pulled their kids out of class after learning that the principal had been to a funeral in Zambia — which is about the same distance from Africa’s Ebola hot zone as Dallas is from Seattle.

After I wrote a column suggesting that these fears were possibly overblown, a distraught caller left me an irate voice mail message.

“Why can’t you understand?” he demanded. “When will you get it through your head that they are lying to us?”

“They” — government health officials, epidemiologists, doctors — were not, by and large, lying, save some graceless waffling by overconfident federal authorities and a frantic subterfuge or two from Presbyterian, which was watching with horror as a public relations Scud missile exploded on its front lawn. “They” wanted Americans to grasp the known truth about the contagion, in all its literal poop-and-vomit medical factuality; “they” tried to talk sense over some of the doomsday theories that were floating around.

It was our good fortune, here in Dallas, to have leaders who withstood the crucible of crisis. County Judge Clay Jenkins and Rawlings — no matter how you feel about their positions on the workaday issues of the community — were calm, sensible and very visible throughout the monthlong ordeal.

Both men modeled compassion toward the family of poor Thomas Eric Duncan, Patient Zero, the Ebola-infected Liberian man who died Oct. 8. They were supportive of the two nurses who contracted the virus while caring for him. For the most part, they concealed their dismay as they realized the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not have a detailed action plan to swoop down and assume control of the situation — that a lot of it was up to them, and that they were going to have to wing it.

“By and large, we were successful. We were also lucky,” Jenkins later told Vanity Fairwriter Bryan Burrough, whose behind-the-scenes look at management of the crisis was published earlier this year. Rawlings told Burrough that, while he was “heartbroken” at Duncan’s death, he is proud that Dallas saw only that one fatality.

Luck and success were by no means a guarantee, not in those tense weeks when nobody knew whether the infection had been contained and the clock was still ticking on the quarantine period for people who had been exposed.

The terrifying advent of a crisis without precedent made a bad situation worse. Smart management helped us get through it.

When Ebola came to the U.S., it could have come anywhere. Bad-luck-of-the-draw brought it to Dallas. We were the test case, the first instance, the teachable moment for communities across the country.

On balance, Dallas could have done a lot worse. Dallas endured. We’re tough that way.

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