US & Canada

My night in the Texas Ebola hospital

Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas Image copyright Getty Images

Staying in a guest room on the ninth floor of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, I learned about the Ebola virus - and the effects of isolation.

When I told my best friend I was going to Texas to write about Ebola, one of my friends gave me some advice.

"Don't touch anything!" she said.

She was joking, but she and others also seemed worried. I thought they were over-reacting.

I wanted to see first-hand what it was like for people who are living and working at ground zero of the Ebola crisis in the US. I knew how serious the illness is. About 70% of the people who get the virus in West Africa die.

But I also knew how the virus is transmitted - through bodily fluids - and wasn't worried about being infected.

What I didn't understand, though, was how quickly you can get afflicted with anxiety and paranoia.

More than 4,500 people in West Africa have died, according to the World Health Organization.

Last month a Liberian, Thomas Eric Duncan, was admitted to Texas Health Presbyterian and became the first to succumb to the virus in the US.

The door of the apartment of one nurse who treated him, Amber Joy Vinson, now has a sticker that says: "Quarantine." She's in Atlanta, undergoing treatment.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A school was closed and cleaners called in after it was discovered that students enrolled there lived with a health worker under quarantine

Another nurse who was infected, Nina Pham, is being treated at National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

Quarantine for Ebola lasts 21 days, which is the incubation time for the virus. The period of isolation for Duncan's girlfriend, Louise Troh, as well as several others who live in the same apartment and were placed in a state-mandated quarantine, is now over.

In addition, dozens of hospital employees - those who helped treat Duncan - were asked to sign legal documents, promising they will not venture into public spaces or ride on buses.

The notion of a quarantine dates back to the Middle Ages. It was used during the bubonic plague. But some believe today's quarantine procedures aren't strict enough.

After I arrived at Dallas on Thursday, I stopped for a latte in the airport. A baggage handler named Chris was having dinner at McDonald's.

"Those two nurses - how many people have they been in contact with?" he said. "Look around." He waved his hand at people who were dragging suitcases and talking on mobiles. They looked harried - but hardly dangerous.

"It's like Outbreak," he said, referring to a 1995 movie starring Dustin Hoffman.

"People from West Africa need to be quarantined," said Stephen Sapp, a corporate lawyer who was walking out of a restaurant near the hospital. It was a hot afternoon, and he was wearing Ray-Bans and a crisply ironed shirt.

"The idea that there were 75 health-care workers exposed," he said, raising his voice to a prosecutorial level. "I don't mean treat them like criminals, but..."

That day I heard the hospital had a small hotel, the Presby Guest House, in the main hospital building. Rooms are cheap - $79 (£49) a night - and I called a clerk and booked one.

Later the manager called and suggested I stay at the Marriott. "I can get you a discount," he said.

"Why - because of Ebola?" I said.

"We have employees being monitored," he said, describing people who work at the hospital. "I just wanted to make sure you're OK with that."

Some of the hospital employees have been offered rooms at the hospital for voluntary quarantine, as I read in the Dallas Morning News.

Image caption The room came with an unusually folded towel

I took a lift to the ninth floor of the main hospital building and began to wonder what "being monitored" meant.

Two men, one wearing a Dallas Sheriff windbreaker, were sitting at a table in the dining area, drinking Red Bull and watching CNN. They were part of the beefed-up security force that has been put in place at the hospital and in other parts of Dallas.

Private security guards watch over the apartment of Vinson and in other places where people infected with the virus have been. Nobody would say where the workers were quarantined at the hospital, but I figured they were nearby.

My room was spartan and smelled like antibacterial soap. The walls were bare except for a framed picture of two wrought-iron hearts and a map of the world. The painting was hung upside down.

There was a clumsily-made towel bunny on the bed. I unwound the towels and put them next to the sink. I spent a lot of time standing there, washing my hands.

The next morning, I sat by the window and had breakfast. Steam was coming out of vents of a building - like smoke from a campfire. An orange windsock tethered to a pole puffed with air.

Image caption The fountain outside of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas,

Ebola had cleared the parking lots below - and most of the streets, too. Doctors told me people had been cancelling appointments. Volunteers haven't been showing up.

"The place is a ghost town," said one man, an oil field pumper who was visiting his mother-in-law at the hospital.

Being in the room alone - down the hall from the sheriffs and the employees who were being monitored - was starting to spook me. It also made me realise how easy it was to fall prey to irrational fears.

The environment at the hospital and in the city was unsettling, especially since neighbours, nurses and people at the airport were seen as lethal creatures that must be avoided - or separated from humanity.

"Even your dog is quarantined," said Dr Jay Staub, who works at the hospital, referring to the way pets have been treated. (One dog, Excalibur, that belonged to a Madrid nurse, was put to sleep.)

There are good reasons for people in Dallas and in other cities in the US and Europe to be concerned. And quarantine can be an effective way of containing Ebola. But isolating people with so little information about them only adds to the hysteria.

I checked out of my room in the late morning. Outside it was bright and sunny, and I was glad to be back in the real world, viruses and all.

Follow Tara McKelvey on Twitter.

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