Fears about the deadly Ebola virus spread to Massachusetts this Columbus Day weekend, prompting holiday press conferences and reverse 911 calls to reassure a jittery public after two Ebola-related scares.
On Sunday, when a man who had traveled to Liberia showed up at a Braintree clinic with flulike symptoms, he triggered a full hazmat response, and was escorted by police to a Boston hospital in an ambulance, while his car was plastered with orange biohazard signs to keep people away.
Then, on Monday, a team dressed in yellow protective suits quickly surrounded and boarded an Emirates flight from Dubai at Logan International Airport after several people on board exhibited flulike symptoms, sparking fears they might have the dreaded disease that is sweeping parts of West Africa.
The incidents followed news of the first Ebola death in the United States, in Texas, and the infection of that patient’s nurse.
Suddenly, a disease that seemed thousands of miles away has spread inside US borders.
“We have a large outbreak of anxiety and it is as real as the Ebola threat,” said William Schaffner, a national infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville. “The chances of getting Ebola are very small, but the public does not see it that way.”
The city has already quietly dealt with three to four other suspected cases of Ebola in recent months, none of which actually turned out to be Ebola, health officials said Monday. Instead, the patients had other diseases common in West Africa, such as typhoid and malaria.
“They were treated with appropriate personal protective equipment,” said Dr. Anita Barry, who heads the infectious disease bureau of the Boston Public Health Commission, “and they went back to living their lives.”
The two weekend scares also appear to be unfounded. Monday night, a spokeswoman for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center said it had “determined with certainty” that the man treated in Braintree does not have Ebola. Also Monday night, the Boston Public Health Commission issued a statement saying that the patients who arrived on Emirates Flight 237 “do not meet the criteria for any infections of public health concern, including Ebola” or several other diseases.
On Tuesday morning, Governor Deval Patrick was scheduled to receive an Ebola preparedness briefing from public health officials and airport personnel.
As public worries intensified over the long weekend, Boston public health officials called a news conference on the Monday holiday to assure residents that Boston hospitals are prepared if an actual case of Ebola eventually turns up. They also wanted to tamp down fears that the disease could spread even if it reaches the region.
Unlike many other diseases, Ebola cannot be spread through the air or water. Instead, people need to have direct physical contact with someone who is already ill or with their bodily fluids. And people are not contagious until they begin to show symptoms.
“This is not something that is going to come at [people] through the air by someone they sat next to on the T who looked perfectly healthy,” said Barry, who heads the infectious disease bureau of the Boston Public Health Commission. “Frankly, they are more at risk from influenza.”
City officials said they also have plenty of experience dealing with infectious diseases.
Barry declined to talk in detail about the Braintree case or why it garnered so much media attention, particularly since officials determined within hours that the patient probably did not actually have Ebola.
But Barry said Boston hospitals would “absolutely not” send a potential Ebola patient back to their car to isolate them from other patients, as the Braintree clinic did. She said it is important to not only isolate patients, but also to keep an eye on them.
“I have never in my 31 years of doing this job ever isolated or quarantined someone in a car,” she said. Barry added that Boston hospitals “all have appropriate spaces in their facilities where they can both isolate or quarantine people and monitor them.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines normally recommend putting a patient suspected of having contracted Ebola in a single patient room with the door closed and making sure that staff who enter the room are wearing protective equipment, including gloves and a face mask.
But Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, which runs the Braintree clinic, defended its actions Monday, saying its medical team followed procedures that were crafted based on the CDC recommendations.
“The situation was handled well and the patient, who was clinically stable, was quickly ushered out of the building and into his own car to reduce any potential exposure of others,” Dr. Ben Kruskal, chief of infectious disease at Harvard Vanguard, said in a statement.
The man came into the Braintree health facility Sunday afternoon and told the medical staff that he had traveled to Liberia, but said he did not know if anyone around him had Ebola, according to Kruskal. He complained of severe headaches and muscle aches, which are consistent with Ebola, but also with many other ailments.
Based on his travel history and symptoms, Kruskal said the medical team suspected he could potentially have Ebola.
The man, who has not been identified, was taken by ambulance to the clinic’s partner, Beth Israel Deaconess, where infectious disease specialists examined him and concluded he was at an extremely low risk for having Ebola. After initially keeping him in isolation, the hospital definitively ruled out the disease on Monday evening and said he remains in good condition.
But Mayor Joseph C. Sullivan of Braintree said many in town were worried over the weekend that the patient might have spread the disease to local residents before he was taken to the hospital. Sullivan spent much of the weekend trying to squelch rumors that the man lived in Braintree or had children in the schools. The town even issued a reverse 911 call to calm anxious residents.
“The news has created significant Braintree buzz,” Sullivan said. Residents “were concerned about the safety of their family and their neighbors.”