Are You Overly Concerned About Ebola? Four Case Studies

From canceled college speaker to hazmat suits in airports, here are four examples of people showing a little too much caution.
Photograph By: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

A recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that — surprisingly! — there is a lot of misinformation out there about how exactly Ebola is spread.

While 97 percent of respondents knew that you can contract Ebola from “direct contact with blood or body fluids of a person who is sick with Ebola and showing symptoms,” 25 percent of people think you can catch the disease through the air and, worse, 37 percent think you can catch it from “shaking hands with someone who has been exposed to Ebola but does not have symptoms.” Rand Paul's understanding is much simpler: Ebola "isn't like AIDS."

Of course, an overabundance of caution can be a good thing. The Centers for Disease Control is contacting individuals who were on Amber Vinson's (the second Dallas health care worker to fall ill) flights to and from Ohio. Meanwhile, a health care worker who may have handled the bodily fluids of Thomas Eric Duncan, America's first Ebola victim, 19 days ago, is being quarantined on a cruise ship.

At a certain point, however, given the facts and the available research, people run the risk of overreacting. Here are four case studies, where what we know would have allowed for a little less caution. 

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1. Canceling a seminar with a photographer who visited Liberia

Michel du Cille, a Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist for The Washington Post, was scheduled to critique student portfolios at Syracuse's Newhouse School of Public Communications, but was uninvited after the school learned he'd recently been in Liberia.

It's clear that Du Cille was definitely at risk for Ebola — he was around the bodies of people who'd died of the disease. However, and here's where the facts come in, he left Liberia 21 days ago and had monitored his temperature and checked for symptoms since returning. According to the CDC, Ebola has a 21 day incubation period. School officials said some have suggested that the incubation period should be longer, and they wanted to err on the side of caution to keep students and parents calm. 

“The most disappointing thing is that the students at Syracuse have missed that moment to learn about the Ebola crisis, using someone who has been on the ground and seen it up close,” du Cille told The Post. “But they chose to pander to hysteria.”

Did they overreact? 

Probably. Since returning from Liberia, Du Cille has been taking photos around Capitol Hill and the CDC. He's been around CDC Director Thomas Frieden, who said he's likely in the clear. 

This is not a good look for a journalism school — budding journalists applying to college right now might want to ask themselves if they want to be taught how to research and present the facts from a school where people aren't convinced by research and facts.

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2. Shutting down schools

There have been at least five school closings in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and in Cleveland over concerns that some people may have come into contact with Vinson when she flew back and forth between Cleveland and Dallas. A school in Akron closed because one of the parents had spent time with Vinson during her visit. Two schools in Texas closed because a student at each one had been on Vinson's flight returning from Dallas. 

But a school in Solon, a Cleveland suburb, two schools closed because an employee was “on a different flight, but perhaps the same aircraft, as the Texas nurse with Ebola,” according to The New York Times

Did they overreact?

Yes. Dr. Andrew T. Pavia, the chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah, told The Times that this was not a “rational” decision, and in fact “it's harmful, in that it's going to further spread misunderstanding and irrational fear.”

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3. Banning Ebola waste in your state

On Monday, Louisiana State Attorney General Buddy Caldwell requested and received a temporary restraining order to keep Duncan's incinerated Ebola waste from being stored in the state's hazardous waste landfill. “There are too many unknowns at this point, and it is absurd to transport potentially hazardous Ebola waste across state lines,” Caldwell said Monday. “We just can't afford to take any risks when it comes to this deadly virus.”

Did Louisiana over-react? 

As Mother Jones pointed out, the incinerated remains of Duncan's belongings are probably the least controversial waste products being shipped into Louisiana. The state accepts fracking waste dumped into old wells and radioactive waste. Maybe the state should have stopped taking risks a little sooner.

4. Wearing a hazmat suit in an airport

On Wednesday a woman was spotted in Washington's Dulles International Airport looking like an extra from the movie Contagion:


Did she overreact? Assuming no one bled and/or projectile vomited on her, yes. Then again, if someone did, the hazmat suit would be convenient, Ebola or not. 

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