Workers Fearful of Ebola Want You to Know How Personal They Get With Body Fluids

Hunting for fevers at U.S. airports may not do much to deter the spread of Ebola virus, but fears of the disease have prompted workers in several fields to sound the alarm about the potential risks they face every day the outbreak goes on.

As many as 200 workers at New York’s LaGuardia Airport began striking late Wednesday as part of their efforts to gain a contract with Atlanta’s Air Serv, an airport contractor for Delta Air Lines, using the attention Ebola has received as a way to address the nastier aspects of their jobs. The workers, who earn an average of $9 per hour, are seeking more durable gloves, as well as goggles and face masks for certain jobs that involve exposure to urine and feces, says Amity Paye, a spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union, which is seeking to represent the contractors. At least once per week an employee is sprayed with lavatory sewage from a plane, a mishap workers dub a “baptism,” she says. “This strike is solely over health and safety conditions,” Paye says. “It’s not over Ebola.”

Air Serv says it provides cabin cleaners with protective equipment. “We continually review our policies and procedures for updates and enhancements, and communicate updates to employees, as necessary–for example, including an update on protocols for Ebola just last week,” company spokesman Chas Strong said in an email. The company has about 300 workers at LaGuardia and more than 11,000 total.

The disease concerns are hardly limited to airline workers. Earlier this week, the largest U.S. flight attendants’ union urged more passenger screening in the African countries hardest hit by the Ebola pandemic. In an emergency, flight attendants are trained as “first responders,” and that often means dealing with passengers who get sick on seats and on themselves. The biggest union of nurses, National Nurses United, says its members are not prepared to deal with Ebola patients. “There needs to be a uniform national standard,” Co-President Jean Ross says. “When you have fragmented islands of private hospitals that can do their own thing, you are left with them doing their own thing, doing just-in-time care, and that is not going to save us from something like Ebola.”

The fear of Ebola infection has gained new attention after a man in Dallas was diagnosed with the disease. He died Wednesday, Oct. 8, the same day U.S. officials announced plans to begin taking the temperatures of passengers at five airports—in Atlanta, Chicago, Newark, New York, and Washington—which account for the majority of passengers who arrive in the U.S. from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, the three countries affected by the Ebola outbreak.

A White House spokesman took pains Wednesday to emphasize that most travelers won’t face any new delays or hassles due to the screening, with only about 150 people coming to America each day from the three nations. Those who have fevers, or who appear sick, will be singled out for more detailed screening by representatives of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Officials concede that the screening is likely to detect some ill people who are suffering plenty of ailments other than Ebola infection.

“These new protocols are, I think, more political and trying to calm the crowd than being effective,” says Dr. Mark Gendreau, calling the temperature screening “a very expensive means of trying to look for a needle in the haystack.” Gendreau served on a panel last year that studied ways to curb the spread of infectious diseases at airports and on airplanes.

That effort (pdf), sponsored by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Academy of Sciences, examined Boston’s Logan Airport and airplanes for “where the greatest opportunity would be for someone to contract an infectious disease,” said Gendreau, vice chairman of emergency medicine at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, Mass. For airlines, the report “strongly recommended” hand sanitizer use before, during, and after a flight and cleaning aircraft surfaces with broad-spectrum disinfectants. Planes should also be ventilated when parked at gates, as they are in flight, which can reduce the concentration of pathogens in cabin air, the report said. Gendreau says airlines should target infectious disease much as the cruise industry constantly seeks to eradicate norovirus, which has caused mass illnesses on cruise ships.

One surprising finding: “Bathrooms are not really a big issue” when it comes to infectious diseases, Gendreau says. Why? Airports have done a good job of minimizing how much people need to touch surfaces: There’s no door to enter, you don’t touch the faucet or soap in many places, and if a paper towel isn’t dispensed automatically you’ll probably use a hand dryer. As a result, most of the touching in the bathroom will be of yourself. “That’s a huge jump in terms of minimizing infectious disease spread,” Gendreau says.

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