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Ohio residents fear Ebola precautions could prompt panic

People across America are panicking about Ebola. But around the home of the infected nurse's family, many neighbors wish folks would just calm down.

TALLMADGE, Ohio — All across America, people are panicking about Ebola. But in this corner of northeastern Ohio — right where the second person to ever contract the disease in the U.S. had visited family — residents wish everyone would just calm down.

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“I think they’re overreacting, is what they’re doing,” says Bryce Vittitoe, 54, who lives down the street from where Amber Vinson — the second health-care worker to become infected — had visited her mother and stepfather, Kelvin Berry, shortly before she was diagnosed. “It scares the hell out of people — it creates a panic,” Vittitoe adds, picking up his granddaughter from the school bus around the corner from Berry's home.

After the news of Vinson’s diagnosis surfaced on Wednesday, Vittitoe’s granddaughter was called home from school early in Tallmadge, a suburb of Akron dotted with modest ranch homes. Local authorities also sealed off the cul-de-sac where her mother's fiancé lives, putting up yellow police tape around the house where Berry is under voluntary quarantine and rerouting the school bus from a street now lined with TV news trucks. 

Two Cleveland-area school districts shut down entirely on Thursday, citing one teacher who had unspecified contact with an infected patient and another who was on a different flight “but perhaps the same aircraft” as Vinson — a step that public health officials deemed unnecessary. Ohio health officials also issued new guidelines on Thursday that go well beyond what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended: The state says that even those who've exchanged a simple handshake with an infected individual should be quarantined for 21 days if they’re not wearing protective gear, even though the disease is not airborne and cannot be transmitted through casual contact. Ohio officials also recommend that those who have been “within a three-foot radius” of an infected individual for a prolonged time should monitor themselves — warnings that could further stoke fears of the disease's contagion.

Local officials stress that they are taking such precautions “out of an abundance of caution.” But taking such steps could end up having the opposite effect, says Anders Klingenberg, a 19-year-old student who lives across the street from Berry. “It could make people more panicked.”

Anders’ father, Doug Klingenberg, believes the sensationalism around Ebola has gotten the better of some people, remembering how his mother-in-law called “all whipped into a frenzy” when she found out they were neighbors of the latest victim’s family. 

He compares the situation to the dire warnings that some friends gave him upon finding out that he was going mountain-climbing. “I was more likely to die in the car on the way,” he notes. Vittitoe similar compares the relatively small number of Ebola victims to those who have succumbed to, say, electrocution or animal attacks. “Look at the statistics,” he says.

Vinson flew from Cleveland to Dallas on October 13, a few weeks after treating Thomas Eric Duncan, the first patient to die of Ebola in the U.S. On Wednesday evening, the 29-year-old nurse was transferred to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta; the family members and five Ohio friends who were in direct contact with her since October 10 remain under voluntary quarantine. Thirteen nurses in Cleveland who were on the same flight as Vinson were sent home on paid leave, though none currently show any symptoms of Ebola.

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The global dimension of the disease has also heightened the American public's concerns about the Ebola, even though the U.S. is vastly better prepared to deal with the virus, which has killed more than 2,400 in Liberia alone. Even Vittitoe, who deems much of the local response unnecessary, echoes calls led by Republicans to stop international flights from the most affected countries.

But in this Ohio neighborhood, the ties are weaker, giving the disease fewer opportunities to travel. Gerald Kilgore, 76, a retiree who lives a few doors down, said he had little to fear from Ebola because the neighbors didn’t tend to socialize. “Nobody associates with everyone,” says Kilgore, who only found out about the local connection to Ebola through his landlord. “Nobody talks to anybody here.”

For all the attention that Ebola has received — in Tallmadge, and everywhere else — another local resident, Brianne Blatt, says that she’s struggled to get solid answers to basic questions. How long does the virus live on surfaces? (A few hours at most, she found.) Does that mean the mailman could transfer it by delivering letters? (The objects that can easily carry the disease are needles and syringes, the CDC says). Should she send her children to school? (She did, though they went by car and not school bus for once.)

“What exactly are the facts?” she says, walking out with her nine-year-old daughter and six-year-old son to the chicken coop in their backyard, across from where the TV crews are now parked. “I don’t know what to do, and what not to do,” says Blatt, who works as an occupational therapist at a local school. 

She even called the CDC to ask whether her backyard chickens would be at risk, as Ebola can be transmitted to animals as well. (It's not clear whether birds can even get the disease. But having no direct contact with infected fluids, they'll be okay.)

Other parents in Tallmadge are feeling even more fearful: About 15 classmates of Blatt’s children didn’t show up for school on Thursday, she says. The incomplete, conflicting reports from officials haven’t inspired confidence either, as government and public health officials have struggled to adapt to an unprecedented incidence of a complex disease in the U.S. On Thursday, for instance, CDCs officials said that they “can’t rule out that [Vinson] might have had the start of her illness on Friday” — earlier than originally suspected.

Pharmacy technician Migdalia Diaz doesn’t blame parents and others who are concerned, imagining how she might react if her granddaughter in the same situation. But Diaz — who works at one of the Cleveland hospitals where nurses have been sent home — believes that more education is necessary, both for the public at large and for the health professionals at the front lines of responding to the disease. 

“You can’t go around saying the wrong thing,” says Diaz, who welcomes the new training that her employer, MetroHealth, is conducting with hospital employees. “You have to be up to date on everything,” she explains. 

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In terms of her own health, Diaz has more immediate concerns. She was hoping to get a flu shot at the hospital on Thursday morning but found the station empty. She guessed that everyone was at the hospital’s town hall on Ebola instead.