The much-ballyhooed Ebola fever has seized national attention in recent weeks as news media and politicians alike have focused on the four people who have contracted the virus in the US, one of whom has died.
Now Orange County Supervisors want to know what the county is doing to prepare for the unlikely day that Ebola fever arrives at their doorstep.
At the Board meeting Tuesday, Supervisor Todd Spitzer peppered public health officer Dr. Eric Handler with questions about the county’s preparation for a potential Ebola outbreak.
“Even though you’ve made a very good point about how it’s not airborne and takes direct contact with either feces or other bodily fluid…but people are still scared,” Spitzer said. “We want to get as much information as possible.”
According to Handler, the risk of contracting Ebola in either Orange County or the United States is virtually “nonexistent,” unless a person has recently had contact with the bodily fluids of an infectious Ebola patient.
The Ebola virus has killed nearly 5,000 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, where years of war and instability has eroded both the economy and public health infrastructure.
Ebola is a highly infectious disease, but not a very contagious one, meaning that while you don’t need much contact with infectious fluids to become ill, the virus does not move very easily from person to person.
Individuals aren’t contagious until they begin to show symptoms, which include fever, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, red eyes, bleeding and bruising.
On Tuesday, Spitzer's questioning of Handler prompted the disclosure that two people in Orange County have returned from travel in West Africa, but they have not shown symptoms and were not exposed to the disease, Handler told supervisors.
Like many volunteer health workers returning from the region, the travelers will take their temperatures twice a day for 21 days, during which time health officials will monitor their conditions, Handler said.
Five U.S. airports are currently accepting flights from the region, where travelers are all screened for the disease. Health officials are notified if any of those travelers are headed to Orange County, Handler said.
“The more recent cases have been isolated quickly so they pose no threat to the general population to the US,” Handler said.
“While we focus on preparing for the possibility for an Ebola case, let’s be mindful that influenza is a preventable disease that causes 36,000 deaths in the United States,” he added.
Spitzer, who requested the presentation at a meeting last week, asked Handler if he would consider restricting the movements of those two travelers.
Handler said restricting their movement was not necessary given that neither person was exposed to Ebola-affected regions.
Spitzer was also concerned about individuals who might refuse to comply with the precautionary measures.
“Let me ensure you, I will not hesitate to do a public health order of quarantine,” Handler said.
The Health Care Agency is conducting on-site visits at hospitals and training drills to educate staff on federal guidelines for Ebola response. Handler said county hospitals are also screening patients based on their travel history and symptoms.
Supervisor Shawn Nelson pointed out that the four cases of Ebola that have occurred in the United States were among healthcare professionals who treated fully symptomatic, and therefore contagious, Ebola patients.
“Everyone who has gotten it, it’s made perfect sense how and why they got it,” Nelson said.
Supervisor John Moorlach asked at what point he, as a county official, should be concerned and step in.
The best anyone can do, Handler said, echoing the message of federal officials, is stem the outbreak at its source.
“I think the most important thing is how we control [Ebola] in Africa. That clearly is the front line,” Handler said.