Ebola-Wary U.S. Seeks Solace in Sanitizer, Prayer

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Photo by BSIP/UIG

Ebola has entered the American bloodstream.

On a recent flight to California, Jim Kosmack stifled coughs from a cold to avoid attention from airport security. Laura Leseberg of Provo, Utah, bought the 1995 bestseller “The Hot Zone” to educate her family. In the Bronx, an African baker is leaving it in the hands of God.

“Sometimes you need to pray hard to fight serious diseases,” said Mimmagde Ouedraogo, who moved to the U.S. three years ago from Burkina Faso.

With three cases of Ebola in Dallas and deaths predicted to top 4,500 this week in Africa, where the worst-ever outbreak rages in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the epidemic is penetrating American consciousness. Citizens are altering routines, often in almost imperceptible ways: purchases of sanitizer, an extra handwashing, second thoughts about whether a flush is a fever.

As government officials have sought to reassure, people are seeking information for themselves. The names of Amber Vinson and Nina Pham, nurses who fell ill with Ebola after treating a Dallas patient, have been among the most searched-for terms on Google.com this week, according to company data. Searches for “Ebola symptoms” also have exploded, with the most in the U.S. coming from Oklahoma and Hawaii as well as Texas.

Staying Home

“Outbreak,” a 1995 movie thriller, and “The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus,” by Richard Preston, have become newly popular on Amazon.com, with dozens of commenters weighing in on their newfound relevance in recent weeks. Kate Fowler, Leseberg’s 36-year-old daughter, said her mother gave her the book.

“I think it’s more dangerous than we’re led to believe,” Fowler said.

Kosmack, walking with his wife along the Santa Monica pier yesterday, said the epidemic has caused the couple to reconsider a safari in Kenya, even though he knows no cases have been discovered there.

“I wouldn’t fly to Africa,” said the 63-year-old retired real-estate developer.

Preschooler Restrained

At a nearby shop selling nutritional supplements, physician Pauline Jose said she expects Ebola to make its way to California. She’s keeping her distance from anyone exhibiting flu-like symptoms and has increased her intake of vitamin C and echinacea to strengthen her immune system.

“I’m just a little more cautious,” Jose said.

For all the concern, less-exotic viruses threaten the public every day. Deaths from flu range from 3,000 to 49,000 a year, depending on the severity of the season, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that looked at cases from 1976 to 2007. Even chicken pox may be more deadly in the U.S., with about 100 to 150 deaths annually.

Still, 52 percent of adults are concerned there will be a large Ebola outbreak inside the U.S. within the year, according to Harvard Public Health poll released yesterday. In August, 39 percent were.

Lizard Brain

“Fear of infectious disease goes deep in the human psyche,” Robert Klitzman, professor of psychiatry at the Columbia University, said at a conference at the New York school. “It’s almost a primal, evolutionary terror.”

Terryn Murphy, 36, is flying from Chicago to Atlanta tomorrow with her 4-year-old daughter, Clarke. Murphy said she plans to keep her child close.

“I’ll be holding her hand and making sure her hands are close to her and not whaling around and touching things,” Murphy said.

Financial markets, often a barometer of mass sentiment, reflect Murphy’s worries about her preschooler. While strategists attribute a 5.4 percent decline on the Standard & Poor’s 500 in the week ended yesterday to a global growth slowdown, they say Ebola isn’t helping.

“This is, by definition, a situation with an unquantifiable outcome,” Dan Greenhaus, chief strategist at BTIG LLC, wrote to clients this week. “To paraphrase one of our smartest clients, ‘If Ebola cases start showing up in other cities, it doesn’t matter what earnings do.’”

Epidemic Get-Up

Tragedy also begets opportunity. DuPont Co. has tripled production of some items used for Ebola protection. Sales of 3M Co.’s respirators are up.

Ruth Maletz, who lives in Chicago, said today that she went to a Costco Wholesale Corp. store and bought a large bottle of hand sanitizer and distributed it among about 10 little bottles “so I got it no matter where I go.”

A kit offered on Amazon offers a DuPont Tyvek body suit with built-in hood and booties, safety glasses and gloves for $35. Stored in a clear plastic bin, it’s small enough to keep one in your home and one in your car “for a quick getaway,” the description says.

The seller, Freedom Hill LLC, included a disclaimer in its writeup: “Ebola is a tricky little virus, nothing can protect you 100 percent of the time.” When contacted by phone, the company declined to comment. Some Amazon commenters suggested the gear would be best used as a Halloween costume.

State and local officials have gone on the offensive.

In Ohio, two schools were closed today and a group of nurses put on paid leave as officials piece together where and with whom Vinson, the latest Ebola patient, traveled in the days before testing positive. Vinson, who had a 99.5 degree fever (37.5 Celsius), flew from Cleveland to Dallas after telling the CDC.

Doctors Drill

In New York, California, New Jersey and North Carolina, hospital workers are undergoing training on symptoms and protective gear. In Houston, that extends to fire and medical workers, who’ll have 900 new full-body protective suits, David Persse, director of emergency medical services told the City Council yesterday.

New York City hospitals are conducting daily drills with fake patients, according to the Health and Hospitals Corp., which operates the city’s 11 public hospitals. The metropolitan area’s urban density, vast public-transportation network and close living quarters had many residents on high alert for germs even before Ebola. A tiny bottle of sanitizer dangling from a backpack is already a common accessory.

Leery Straphanger

As Edward Banks, a 28-year-old welder, rode the subway to the Bronx yesterday, he said he was glad to have work gloves to shield himself from virus-bearing handrails. Norma Harrison, a health-care worker in Harlem who makes house calls, said she now packs a fresh pair of clothes to change into before leaving patients’ homes.

Moussa Diagne, a nurse who moved to New York from Senegal 28 years ago, said little can be done for an outbreak apart from staying away from contaminated places.

“If anybody tries to take me to Dallas, I won’t go,” Diagne said in an interview at an African market in Harlem.

In Chicago, Maletz puts her faith in her little sanitizer bottles.

“My hands are all dried up now,” she said. “Hopefully that helps. I don’t even know if it will. It makes me feel better.”