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'People Are Freaking Out': Ebola Fear Keeps Patients Away From Dallas Hospitals, Clinics

Fear and reactions to the Dallas Ebola cases are making news around the country.

Patients are canceling medical appointments. In Texas and Ohio, schools have been closed so they can be cleaned. A community college in Corsicana is refusing to admit students from Ebola-affected countries.

People are freaking out, says a Dallas nurse who asked not to be identified for fear of losing his job.

“Everybody don’t want to die; I don’t want to die either," the nurse said.

Patients are scared, and staying away, he says. On Friday, his facility was mostly empty. That’s unusual, especially for flu season.

Clients that do visit are asking if Ebola is airborne. One parent told him her daughter’s teacher has a low-grade fever, and is in quarantine, so the mother brought the daughter to be checked for Ebola.  

“People don’t believe anybody,” he said. “People want to stay away from anybody that lives in the neighborhood. They’re just afraid of the unknown.”

A surgeon with a private practice at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, where the Ebola patients have been treated, says patients aren’t making appointments.

“The whole hospital is really like a ghost town,” Dr. Alexandra Dresel said. “The cafeteria is empty. The parking lots are empty. The operating room, which is normally full of cases, has a much smaller load.”  

October is normally a busy month for this doctor, but she’s received no new patients. And those with scheduled surgeries, she personally called to talk about Ebola. She explained to patients that Ebola can only be contracted through direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone who’s actually sick.

Credit Doualy Xaykaothao / KERA News
Axl Goode sat near Amber Vinson, the Dallas nurse who treated an Ebola patient who then traveled on a Frontier Airlines flight. Vinson contracted Ebola -- and Goode has decided to stay at his North Dallas home, just in case. He spoke with KERA via Skype.

“People are so irrationally afraid,” Dresel said. “A woman asked the girls in the office, 'OK, so I know she’s going to do a biopsy during surgery, now where’s that biopsy going to go? Is that going to go to the same lab that they checked for the Ebola?' And the girls went, 'Well, does it matter?' I mean, we’re not putting it back in you. Why does it matter if it got processed on the moon or in the same pathology lab as Ebola was processed?”

She’s also heard colleagues are looking to move their practices out of Presbyterian, something she says she might consider.

“If I’m not seeing new patients in the office, that will trickle to no more new surgeries,” Dresel said. “And that becomes no income, no ability to pay my office manager, or my other employees, no ability to pay the rent, to pay your malpractice insurance. It just spirals from there.”

Some people are minimizing the situation and other people that are reacting in a panicked state, says Axl Goode. He’s a Frontier Airlines passenger who on a Monday flight from Cleveland sat three feet away from Amber Vinson, the second Presbyterian nurse to contract Ebola.

“It’s incredibly scary to think about what could happen over the next few days,” Goode said, speaking on Skype from his home in North Dallas. “And waiting around, taking your temperature and hoping that the temperature doesn’t come back high.”

Bottom line, he says, it’s people like him who may have been exposed to an infected person that should be worried -- not the general public.  

Doualy Xaykaothao is a newscaster and reporter for NPR, based in Culver City. She returned to NPR for this role in 2018, and is responsible for writing, producing, and delivering national newscasts. She also reports on breaking news stories for NPR.