Rumors of Ebola turned out to be far more contagious than the virus itself this weekend as online media whipped up a feverish story, later disproven, of a suspected Ebola case in Kansas City.
After appearing on a local blog and a Wichita television website Saturday night, the rumor went viral, spreading to such national outlets as Breitbart.com.
Then on Sunday afternoon, a spokeswoman for Research Medical Center issued a statement:
“We have seen online reports that a patient at Research Medical Center is suspected of having Ebola. These reports are inaccurate. Research Medical Center is caring for a patient who presented to our Brookside Campus emergency department, however, the patient does not have the symptom profile of Ebola.”
That was followed Monday by a statement from the Kansas City Health Department: “The Health Department has ruled out the presence of Ebola in Kansas City.”
“There was a social media frenzy about the possibility of Ebola in Kansas City,” said Jeff Hershberger, a department spokesman. “We’re still exploring how this happened.”
Hospitals and the general public have been on edge since an Ebola case was diagnosed last week at a hospital in Dallas. Thomas Eric Duncan is in critical condition at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. The hospital’s failure to recognize that Duncan may have had Ebola during an earlier visit to its emergency room has heightened vigilance further.
Details about what happened Saturday in Kansas City are still unclear, but a feverish man was taken to Research Medical Center’s Brookside Campus on Saturday night. The man apparently was from Nigeria, a country that has had Ebola cases but is not among the three African countries engulfed in the current epidemic.
The patient’s travel history and fever “triggered them to look at things that included Ebola,” Hershberger said.
Kansas City police said they received a call Saturday night from a nurse who told them the hospital was under lockdown because of suspicions about the patient. The police decided to block access to the patient’s apartment in the 3600 block of East Meyer Boulevard and to keep the vehicle used to take him to the hospital under observation.
“Neighbors saw (the police activity) and got worried and contacted the media,” Hershberger said.
Meantime, the blog TonysKansasCity.com posted the line: “First suspected report of Ebola in Kansas City!!” Tony Botello, who writes the blog, later revised that report.
KCTV-5 broadcast a story Saturday night about the apartment building being locked down because of a potentially contagious disease but never mentioned Ebola, said Darrin McDonald, the station’s vice president and general manager.
If a Wichita station reported it was a case of the Ebola virus, “they connected dots that we never did,” McDonald said.
Gordon Beedle, a news producer at KWCH-12 in Wichita, said the station received information from KCTV about the story and posted its own version online. Beedle said he couldn’t recall exactly what that story said and couldn’t trace it Monday night.
Sunday night, KCTV reported that Kansas City health officials said it was not Ebola.
But on Saturday night, others told a different story, said Christine Hamele, a spokeswoman for HCA Midwest Health, which operates Research Medical Center.
“I was made aware of erroneous reports of a suspected Ebola case in the Kansas City area,” she said. “What was clear to me by 11 p.m. (Saturday) was that none of the information … was accurate.”
Hamele said the patient was transferred from Research’s Brookside Campus to the main hospital, where he was placed in isolation. He responded well to treatment and was released Monday, she said.
“A lot of us are on an extra alert because of what happened in Dallas,” Hershberger said. “What happened this weekend was a situation we would prefer to what happened in Dallas. We prefer extra vigilance to not enough vigilance.”