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A Year After Ebola, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins Says North Texas Is 'Battle-Hardened'

Christina Ulsh
KERA News special contributor
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins speaking to NPR's Melissa Block in 2014.

Less than 24 hours after Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan was confirmed to have the Ebola virus, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins was thrust into a leadership role few people had trained for.

Jenkins was tasked with coordinating the response to the public health scare. Over the course of six weeks, two nurses contracted the virus and almost 200 people were monitored for possible symptoms. Jenkins looks back on how he led in an unprecedented situation.

KERA'sconversation with Jenkins is part of a new series called Surviving Ebola --explore the KERA digital project here, along with a timeline of Ebola-related events, voices of those most affected by the virus, and much more.

Interview Highlights: Clay Jenkins…

…On his initial thoughts when he heard the diagnosis:

“It seemed like a manageable event, frankly. I spoke with the state’s top health official, Dr. David Lakey, spoke to some people at the White House, and it seemed like a pretty manageable event. I had no idea that I would be in charge of a major response.

…On organizing the response effort:

“The next day…Dr. Lakey, [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director] Thomas Frieden and I had a telephone conference and they asked me to be in charge. I remember, frankly being a little shocked by that, saying ‘well, I’m the only one on this call who’s not a doctor.’ The night that I was told that I was in charge, we literally created the incident command structure for Ebola on a whiteboard because there wasn’t one in the United States. That’s now used throughout teaching people about Ebola.

…On the hardest thing about leading the response:

“You get to know all the people, so you pray for them, but you also worry about Amber and Nina and their two families. Louise and the three young men. Not knowing who was going to come down sick next. Feeling an incredible sense of responsibility to the young Parkland nurses who were staffing the Methodist facility up in Richardson if the worst happened, knowing that we might lose some of them. Knowing that I was in charge during that. There was a burden to that, but you really don’t have a lot of time to reflect on that, you just keep moving forward.

…On how he felt about Ebola victims being demonized:

Most of the people who acted in ways that tended to demonize these victims, they were people who were afraid for their families, and they were deserving of some grace and compassion also.

It does make you angry and there were times that I was angry and at times hurt by some of the things that happened, but you plow through that because you have a job to do, and looking back, you just can’t hold any bitterness, you’ve got to let it go.

…On how the county would respond to Ebola in the future:

[Our system] is battle-hardened for this, the problem with any emergency is the next emergency is not the last emergency. That’s why we train constantly and we maintain these relationships with the county, the city, the state and federal partners, so that when the next thing happens that threatens our citizens, we can do our very best to keep them safe.  

Former KERA staffer Krystina Martinez was an assistant producer. She produced local content for Morning Edition and She also produced The Friday Conversation, a weekly series of conversations with North Texas newsmakers. Krystina was also the backup newscaster for the Texas Standard.
Rick Holter was KERA's vice president of news. He oversaw news coverage on all of KERA's platforms – radio, digital and television. Under his leadership, KERA News earned more than 200 local, regional and national awards, including the station's first two national Edward R. Murrow Awards. He and the KERA News staff were also part of NPR's Ebola-coverage team that won a George Foster Peabody Award, broadcasting's highest honor.