'We're here for you, stay calm' - Base, county health officials ready for unlikely Ebola threat

  • Published
  • By Brian Shreve
  • Robins Public Affairs
Few people would deny that Ebola isn't a very soothing word. And, as the disease continues to dominate the news, so do the concerns of many Americans, almost to a point of hysteria some   would say.  

But make no mistake. As with any potential threat - manmade or otherwise - Team Robins is ready to tackle it.  

Last week, Col. Anita Winkler, 78th Medical Group aerospace medicine chief, met with county health officials - particularly those who deal with emergency care - to formulate what she called a realistic threat assessment for the Robins community.  

"We wanted to all get on the same page so that we're all working together," she said. "We want to calm fears because there's a lot of worry wells out there, and to make sure that if this does actually occur in our community, we'll be able to handle it appropriately - getting people where they need to be for the highest echelons of care."

It's all about detection and protection, she said. The team has gathered information on particular screenings to ensure the case definition of Ebola would be captured in the unlikely event that it arrives here.

"God forbid if someone does have Ebola, we want to prevent any delay, which is exactly what they don't need," Winkler said.

If anyone deployed to high-risk areas, they would be pre-screened and thoroughly assessed for 21 days as part of Defense Department guidelines, though no Robins Airmen are currently serving in any affected areas, particularly West Africa. 

Winkler said one problem with Ebola screening is that initial symptoms mirror those of the flu - something that may leave it overlooked in early stages, and can also lend to a bit of hypochondria from those experiencing a fever or other common ailments.  

That's why, as a precaution, the clinic's Tricare Nurse Advice Line now has additional questions pertaining to symptoms and recent travel for callers seeking medical guidance before visiting the facility.

"People shouldn't be concerned when they call," said Winkler. "No, we don't think they have Ebola, but we do need to ask these questions. And as with any sickness, it's better to call first if the condition doesn't seem serious because we can better triage to protect the community at large. We're putting positive steps together to do this, and we appreciate people's help in doing the right things.

"It's very scary and sometimes just making that phone call and having a medical professional talk someone through the algorithms calms people down," she said.

People are also encouraged to get vaccinated for the flu and to protect themselves with hand sanitizer or masks while in a clinic setting.

Winkler she's seen hype-fueled fears about different contagions many times during her career. 

And while there is no need to panic, diseases such as Ebola must still be taken seriously and with vigilance, she said.  

"Should we have a healthy concern for it? Absolutely, just like with any infectious disease," she said. "But there's always something that comes out that's a community threat, which is why we have these containment plans to begin with. Right now the big thing is Ebola. Maybe a year from now it will be something else."

Winkler said the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003 and the discovery of the H1N1 virus - commonly known as Swine Flu - in 2009, are two recent examples of pandemics.

With Ebola, however, there have so far been only three cases actually diagnosed in the U.S. since September when Thomas Duncan, a Liberian native, traveled to Dallas carrying the disease. 

Two healthcare workers who treated him during what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the highest risk period have also contracted the virus but are recovering. 

Like Duncan, a few other patients contracted Ebola in West Africa, then returned to the U.S. for treatment.

"This disease has been around for a long time unfortunately, but people thought of it as a third-world disease," said Winkler. "We get a false sense of security as Americans with the excellence of care we have. Now it's here, people see it and someone died here. But we are working, we are aware, we're here for you - stay calm."