UPDATED Ebola Has Landed in Texas, But Keep Calm

UPDATED Ebola Has Landed in Texas, But Keep Calm
Photo from Centers for Disease Control

Update: Hospital officials on Wednesday, October 8 announced that Thomas Eric Duncan has died from the Ebola disease. A statement from Presbyterian has been added to the end of this post.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard that a man was diagnosed with Ebola up in Dallas on Tuesday. For anyone that has ever seen Outbreak, this may seem like a good time to panic, but that's what both experts and politicians are urging everyone not to do.

Dr. Charles Ericsson, the infectious disease specialist for Harris Health System and UT Health, understands why people might get nervous about the disease. "It's an outbreak of a vile disease for which there is no treatment and no vaccine, and so it gets everybody's attention. People assume that the fact that it kills at such a high level must mean it's quite transmissible. It's not," he says. While it's easy for people, particularly medical workers, to be infected in places like West Africa, the cause has more to do with their lack of resources than the infectious nature of the disease, he says.

The disease is transmitted by secretions and excretions of the body -- blood, sweat, feces, semen, mucous or urine -- so it takes a decent amount of direct contact to become infected, according to the CDC. In the case of the Dallas patient, identified by the Liberian government as Thomas Eric Duncan, he helped take a pregnant woman to a hospital in Liberia just four days before catching a flight to the United States, according to the New York Times.

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The folks at Harris Health have been keeping an eye on the disease and preparing for the chance of having to deal with it for months, he says. "We've already got policies in place about how to triage people with fevers, starting with asking whether they've been in other countries," he says.

At Harris Health, Ericsson said they have coached their emergency room workers and the rest of their medical staff for what to look for - fever is one of the first indicators of the disease - and the right questions to ask. Namely, if the patient has been to West Africa lately, or if they have had contact with anyone suspected of having Ebola, or if they have been messing with any rodents, bats and monkeys or other known animal Ebola carriers from West Africa.

Still, Ericsson said the odds of them actually getting an Ebola patient are "extremely remote." If such a thing should happen, the plan is to follow Centers for Disease Control protocols for handling infectious diseases which involves wearing gowns more often and making sure said gowns are made of a substance that can repel all of the substances the human body is capable of creating. That's pretty much all you need to deal with the disease, he says. "You don't have to have a P4 lab with spacesuits and everything. And we've gone out of our way to get a little more technical gear, like impervious gowns and face shields to keep bodily fluids off of you - you can't risk somebody coughing on you and getting their droplets in your eyeball," he said.

Ericsson and experts like him have been preaching calm since the news broke that a Liberian man was diagnosed on Tuesday in Dallas. More surprisingly, so have all the politicians (it feels like they're worried about panic in the streets or something.) State Sen. Wendy Davis and state Attorney General Greg Abbott both advised calm when they were asked about the Ebola threat at the beginning of their final debate for the governor's race on Tuesday night.

We aren't sure if anyone actually asked the GOP candidate for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Dan Patrick, what he thought, but he issued a release on Wednesday anyway reassuring everyone that he has spoken to healthcare officials and that the whole Ebola thing is under control. Sen. Ted Cruz is also totally on it, according to a release issued Wednesday.

Gov. Rick Perry, the one person who probably actually needed to be speaking on this, held a press conference at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital on Wednesday where he urged everyone to keep cool. "The disease cannot be transmitted before having any symptoms," he said. "This is a disease that is not airborne and is substantially more difficult to contract than the common cold."

Update October 8, 2014 at 1 p.m.: Officials have announced that Thomas Eric Duncan died at Presbyterian early this morning. Here's a statement hospital officials sent to our sister paper the Dallas Observer:

"It is with profound sadness and heartfelt disappointment that we must inform you of the death of Thomas Eric Duncan this morning at 7:51 a.m. Mr. Duncan succumbed to an insidious disease, Ebola. He fought courageously in this battle. Our professionals, the doctors and nurses in the unit, as well as the entire Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas community, are also grieving his passing. We have offered the family our support and condolences at this difficult time."

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