When it come to Ebola, Barton County Health Director Shelly Schneider has two words of advice for Heartland residents.
“Don’t panic,” she said.
On the heels of teleconferences on the deadly disease called Wednesday by the White House and the Centers for Disease Control, Schneider hastily pulled together a meeting for local officials Friday morning. “We wanted to put out some fires and squelch some misinformation,” she said.
“We wanted to assure them that we did have a plan in place,” Schneider said. The Health Department traces all communicable disease cases and submits reports to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, as well follows all the state and federal public health requirements.
“People have nothing to be worried about,” she said. “There have been no cases in Kansas.”
As for the meeting Friday, Schneider said it was well attended with about 50 participants. Those there included representatives from Barton County fire departments, school superintendents and nurses, hospital administrators, city mayors, and members of the Barton County Medical Advisory and Local Emergency Planning committees.
“We had some really good discussion,” Schneider said. Ebola is in the news now, but the protocols in place cover all diseases, including influenza.
“We received some calls from concerned people,” Schneider said of what prompted the meeting. “We figured if there was one call, then there were probably 50 people who were worried about it.”
So, she rushed around to set up the informational meeting to start a public educational campaign.
Despite the recent hysteria, Schneider said Ebola is just one of many infectious diseases that are tracked and reported. This all falls under the department’s mandate to take the lead on public health matters.
Schneider said Barton County already has a strong response network in place, featuring public officials, first responders and health care professionals. There are also plans in place to respond to health emergencies.
As a side note, Schneider said her department is available with resources and assistance to help businesses and other entities create their own response plans, something she strongly recommends.
This is not just a local issue.
On Monday, Texas Health Commissioner Dr. David Lakey told reporters that stress and panic were likely to cause more damage to the community than the fearsome virus itself. This was before a Texas man died Thursday from the first case of the illness diagnosed on U.S. soil.
In Dallas, some parents are keeping their children home from school, the Dallas Morning News reported, and some nonprofits told the newspaper that some of their volunteers are refusing to enter the neighborhood where the patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, first showed symptoms.
At the national level, a survey back in August by the Harvard School of Public Health found that nearly 40 percent of Americans are “concerned” that there will be a full-fledged outbreak of Ebola within the next year. It’s not altogether surprising, considering some of the near-hysterical television coverage.
On Meet the Press this past weekend, Joe Scarborough made his case for mass Ebola panic, saying, “If you think the Atlantic Ocean is going to stop it from coming over here, you’re kidding yourself.” And on a recent Fox & Friends, Elisabeth Hasselbeck demanded to know why she should worry more about flu than Ebola, countering infectious-disease specialist Dr. Dalilah Restrepo’s calm but thorough answer with a simple “But it’s here.”
In a way, what we’re seeing here is hypochondria manifested on a mass scale, said Catherine F. Belling, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, who has written a book on hypochondria.
“I know that there are a lot of people, clearly, who are very anxious and panicking at this point, who maybe don’t altogether trust what the CDC is saying,” she said. “And they’re worried that it’s out in America now, instead of being far away in Africa.” We tend to think of hypochondriacs as the irrational individuals who, after spending entirely too much time on WebMD, become convinced that a minor headache means a brain tumor, or that a lingering cough means lung cancer. But that anxiety and fear some of us are having over catching Ebola (a highly unlikely health outcome)? That’s hypochondria, too, Belling explained.