Should Boston Be Freaking Out About Ebola?

On October 12, a Harvard Vanguard facility in Braintree was evacuated after a patient who had recently traveled to West Africa presented Ebola-like symptoms. (That patient has since been determined by officials at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to not have the Ebola virus, and is listed by the hospital to be in good condition.)

Was this the beginning of the end? Were we about to be faced with a full-fledged Ebola outbreak right here in Boston?

Dr. Ednan Bajwa, ICU Director at Massachusetts General Hospital, told Boston.com that the end is likely not near. Before you start stocking up on biohazard supplies on Amazon, listen to what someone who actually knows what they are talking about has to say.

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∙ What’s the biggest concern for the public in the greater Boston area?

“There isn’t really anything to be concerned about right now, and it’s unlikely there ever will be anything to be concerned about. Worldwide, there have been a small number of infected patients who have brought the virus from West Africa to other areas. It’s possible that someone could get off a plane with the virus – as happened in Dallas – but the chances of a U.S. outbreak that affects the public are still remotely low and almost certainly will stay that way.’’

∙ I know Ebola is not airborne now, but could it mutate and become more communicable? Is it worth buying those little masks that people wore during the SARS epidemic?

“It’s extremely unlikely. No virus has ever been known to mutate sufficiently to make the jump from non-airborne to airborne. In order to become airborne, a virus has to undergo major changes that would change other characteristics of the virus as well. For example, even when scientists have actually tried to manipulate viruses in the lab to increase their aerosol potential, usually it changes the virus enough that it becomes less dangerous. Masks are not going to accomplish anything for members of the public. They are only helpful to healthcare workers taking care of sick patients because they can protect the face from splashes of body fluids. That situation is not going to apply to anyone who’s not working around sick patients.’’

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∙ Is there anything I should do when in close quarters with people, like on the MBTA or in an elevator? Should I not touch railings or door handles in public?

“Keep in mind that there are currently no people with confirmed or even suspected Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) anywhere near the Boston area. There is virtually zero chance of coming into incidental contact with an infected person right now. Even if there were cases reported in the Boston area, people are most infectious when they’re very sick and producing body fluids. People who are that sick are typically not well enough to be out and about.’’

∙ Ebola is passed through “close contact,’’ but what exactly does that mean? If an Ebola patient touches a light switch and I touch it right after, can bodily fluids transfer that way?

“Keep in mind that the Dallas patient who died of EVD was severely ill at home with his family for a few days and yet, over two weeks later, none of his family members have become infected. It’s just not that easy to transmit unless you’re in direct contact with infected body fluids. In the “light switch’’ scenario they would have to directly contaminate the switch and you’d have to touch it within a few hours and then put your hands in your mouth or eyes, or have an open cut on your hand. It’s possible but extremely unlikely. And again, keep in mind that someone who is shedding virus in their body fluids that way will usually be very sick.’’

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∙ OK, so maybe the general public shouldn’t worry so much. Are there people who are more at risk? Hospital workers? Ambulance drivers? Elderly? Infants? People whose immune systems are compromised?

“Members of the general public don’t need to worry right now even if they’re elderly, young, or immunocompromised. Healthcare workers and first responders are at risk of exposure, yes. There has been extensive training underway for people in these professions for a while now. As an example, look at the response by healthcare workers, police and EMS in Braintree. The facility staff became aware of the patient’s symptoms and travel history, isolated them, and notified the authorities. The police and EMS made their infection control preparations and brought the patient to a hospital equipped and trained to handle possible EVD cases. The facility assessed and treated the patient according to their protocol. You can expect that type of coordinated response for any possible cases that pop up.’’

∙ What if I’m a patient in a hospital that’s holding an Ebola patient? What are you doing to keep me safe? What if I’m giving birth at a hospital where an Ebola patient is being treated? Should I be worried?

“A patient in the same hospital as an EVD patient is extremely safe. Hospital plans involve putting EVD patients into isolation rooms. Dedicated teams of doctors, nurses, and other staff would be taking care of those patients and would not be involved in the care of other patients. Any waste or equipment from that room would be specially handled. There’s virtually no chance of it spreading from patient to patient in a hospital.’’

Keep calm, Boston. Keep calm and carry on.

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