Ebola seemed out of control in Kansas City recently — not the disease itself, but rumors and anxious news reports about the deadly virus.
On a recent Saturday, social media spread such fevered rumors of a suspected Ebola case at Research Medical Center that the hospital issued a news release the next day denying the reports. Not knowing of the hospital’s statement, the Kansas City Health Department held a news conference a day later to say the same thing: no Ebola here.
A week later, rumors spread so far so fast about a patient in an isolation unit at the University of Kansas Hospital that the hospital felt compelled to hold a news conference hours after he was admitted. As a phalanx of TV crews broadcast live, the hospital’s chief medical officer said the patient was, indeed, being tested for Ebola but was at “low to moderate risk” of the disease. Within two days, tests showed he was Ebola-free.
Similar false alarms have been happening across the country.
Public health officials and news media are now trying to get the situation under control.
The Kansas City Health Department started work this week with other local health departments on guidelines for reporting information about Ebola-related cases to the news media and public.
The Associated Press recently told news organizations that it wasn’t going to routinely distribute stories about suspected Ebola cases. And on Wednesday, the Maryland health department announced that health officials and hospitals no longer will offer information or even acknowledge the presence of suspected Ebola cases until the disease is confirmed.
“It’s important that we’re communicating as consistently as we can, sharing information the public needs,” said Kansas City Health Department Director Rex Archer. When misinformation spreads, it creates “inappropriate levels of fear that cause the public to overreact.”
Archer met this week with area health departments to share ideas for uniform reporting guidelines. He hopes to get them all on board and then hospitals, as well.
Archer said he was motivated by the “sum total of all the reporting going on around the country. It’s just a situation ripe for social media speculation and even pranks to cause the health care system to mobilize when it’s unnecessary.”
Those stories started to appear as the Ebola epidemic in three West African nations began gaining international attention in recent months. But their exponential growth started last month, after Thomas Eric Duncan of Ebola-stricken Liberia was diagnosed with the disease at a Dallas hospital and two of his nurses also fell ill.
Since then, unfounded stories have circulated widely:
▪ A young girl from Liberia became ill and was taken to a hospital in Dover, Del., where she was placed in isolation. She was quickly found to be free of Ebola. False alarm.
▪ The Inspira Medical Center in Woodbury, N.J., was rumored to have an Ebola patient under treatment. False.
▪ Workers at a Doritos factory tested positive for Ebola and infected thousands of bags of chips. Hoax.
Maryland health officials are trying to take fuel out of Ebola combustion by limiting information they release to confirmed cases only. They’ve asked hospitals, which in some cases had been announcing patients being kept in isolation, to follow the same rules.
“The public health is not served by repeated rumors about possible cases,” Albert Wu, a professor at the Johns Hopkins school of public health, told the Baltimore Sun. “I think it results only in whiplash and heightened anxiety.”
But some experts say health officials and hospitals need to be more adaptable, especially now that social media can fill an information void with speculation, innuendo and false information.
“You’re not looking to report out on any person being monitored or tested (for Ebola). That could be putting more fear and panic in the community than providing a public service,” said Chris Aldridge of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
“But once social media get hold of it, it takes on a life of its own. That may force you to take steps.” In such circumstances, disclosing information “shows you’re on top of things, and it can reassure the public that things are under control.”
How much information gets released is a balancing act, Aldridge said, between a patient’s right to privacy and the public’s right to enough information to assess potential risks.
When information about a patient is disclosed, it needs to be accompanied by a discussion of what the true risks to the public are, Aldridge said. Those risks are very small; the Ebola virus isn’t easy to catch, and infected people don’t pose a risk to others until they’ve developed symptoms, he said.
Archer of the Kansas City Health Department thinks health authorities should tell the public about confirmed Ebola cases, but probably no more than the person’s sex and date of birth. It would be up to individual hospitals to disclose where patients were being treated. He also would release information about suspected cases, at least in situations where the patient may have been contagious and exposed people to the virus.
Archer’s suggestions are still under discussion with other health departments. “I’m not saying we have 100 percent agreement,” he said.
The Kansas and Missouri health departments have not issued specific guidelines for publicly reporting Ebola.
Fraser Seitel, a partner at Rivkin & Associates, a health care communications firm specializing in crisis management, advises hospitals not to make announcements when they have suspected Ebola cases. “That could send panic through the community,” he said.
“But we have to be sensitive that rumors are going to start and if news media start reporting it, you have to react. You have to staunch rumors quickly.”
The University of Kansas Hospital found itself in a tough spot last month shortly after a man who had served as a medical officer on a commercial vessel off the west coast of Africa checked himself in before dawn with a high fever and other symptoms common to Ebola and other tropical diseases.
Hospital officials said the patient’s family or a co-worker may have been the first to post something about him on social media that morning. By early afternoon, hospital spokeswoman Jill Chadwick had received a call from a local television station.
After that, “it spread like a grass fire. It was amazing,” Chadwick said. Within minutes, the hospital’s public relations department had heard from CNN, National Public Radio and Al Jazeera.
Lee Norman, the hospital’s chief medical officer, faced the assembled reporters and photographers that evening. “We had no intention to go public with this gentleman,” he said this week. “It becomes a crisis of confidence if we were to simply clam up and say, ‘No comment.’ That would just feed the fire.”
Tests soon found the patient was Ebola-free. The fire was out.
Karl Stark is the health and science editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and president of the Association of Health Care Journalists. He believes that “good information is the best treatment for the anxiety caused by the media. So public health authorities should be as forthcoming as possible.”
But suspected Ebola cases often aren’t worth a news story, he said. “First of all, positive results have been rare in the U.S. We had over 100 people being monitored for Ebola symptoms in Pennsylvania at one time, and none of them ended up testing positive. A steady drumbeat of stories on suspected cases would have ... needlessly stoked public hysteria.”
Stark suggests that journalists “put the Ebola epidemic in perspective. Flu kills 36,000 Americans a year. ... There is so far one Ebola fatality on U.S. soil.”
A clear perspective about Ebola will be essential in the months ahead. “I can only see this getting more difficult as we go into flu season, where the symptoms of flu mimic Ebola,” Archer said.
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