Dallas: A Journal of the Plague City

Pete Freedman
Dallas: A Journal of the Plague City

DALLAS—Business is down at Texas Presbyterian, the hospital at the center of Texas’s three confirmed Ebola cases—or so says one employee, who works as an administrator for a general surgeon with offices inside the complex’s many buildings, all of which are connected by a skywalk system.

“This is usually our busy season,” the administrator said, noting that it’s in these months of the year when patients most often elect for surgery, hoping to take advantage of their health insurance plan allowances before the calendar changes over. “But the O.R. has actually seen a huge decrease in elective surgeries.”

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Appointments still happen, of course. But even before they do, they now carry a distinct, concerned tone. Everyone needs reassurance.

“It’s every phone call,” the employee said. “People think I’m an Ebola expert just because I work in the building. Misinformation is my biggest thing. I’ve talked some people off of the ledge. There’s only so much I can say, but it all boils down to this: If it wasn’t safe, why in the world would I bring my kid into the office with me?”

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The employee’s 4-year-old son attends an on-site daycare center. Regular emails from hospital higher-ups—correspondences that the employee applauds for their transparency and for showing that these officials “really do care”—have fully convinced her that she needn’t worry. Aside from the fact that the media camera bank, which has remained in place for more than two weeks now, is located right by the daycare drop-off spot, she says she has no problem taking her boy there each morning.

When news broke that Thomas Eric Duncan, the first victim of Ebola in the U.S., was being treated at Texas Health Presbyterian, the employee said, “I was like, ‘Shit. Why am I here? What am I doing?’” 

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“My husband thinks I’m going to give [Ebola] to him every time I look his way. I get it. I heard Mr. Duncan’s story on NPR and it had me in tears. But what can we do about it? We work here. We have to be here. Most everyone here is acting really, really lightheartedly about it.”

The employees are, at least. The patients who come in for meetings and treatments aren’t as confident.

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Just the other day, the employee watched another mother freak out after her daughter licked some of the buttons in an elevator.

“I had just wiped the buttons down with some alcohol swipes,” the employee said. “You could tell from the look in [the daughter’s] eyes what she was about to do. The mom was looking at her phone and the kid just started licking. The mom just let out a huge scream. I was like, ‘Chill the eff out! You knew what you were doing when you brought [her] here.’”

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***

The cameras and reporters had been there for hours. So had the crowd of residents milling about behind them.

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After a Sunday-morning press conference in which city leaders misidentified the residence of Nina Pham, the 26-year-old nurse infected with Ebola, as being on the 3700 block of Marquita Avenue—a block that doesn’t even exist—the media and its onlookers gathered on the berm along the 5700 block, which cuts through an affluent neighborhood known as the M Streets, consisting mostly of young professional types. From across the way, it was clear this was indeed the spot where Pham had self-diagnosed the previous Friday night, becoming the first transmitted case of Ebola in the United States. A yellow hazardous material bin placed out on the lawn, just beyond some red tape reading “Danger Do Not Enter,” left no doubt. Yup, it was right there, within that eight-plex apartment building, where the Ebola outbreak in Dallas refused to die.

Fewer than three miles to the north, in a part of town known as The Village—distinct from Pham’s only in that the professionals who live there are even younger and higher in numbers—a similar display of curiosity would take place Wednesday morning. There, officials confirmed, resided the second known Ebola transmission in the U.S.: 29-year-old Amber Vinson, a Kent State graduate who also worked as a nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian as part of the team treating Duncan.

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Outside of Pham’s apartment on Sunday, residents pestered the media for information, which the reporters and camera operators were all too happy to share. It was a “breach of protocol” that led to Pham’s infection, they all said, spouting the same terminology shared by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden in his own media alert that day. Pham was a member of the 70-person volunteer crew that had treated the now-deceased Duncan in isolation at Dallas’ Texas Health Presbyterian hospital, some five miles to the north. Details beyond that were scarce: She’d noticed the symptoms herself—a temperature spike had tipped Pham off to the fact that something might be up; she was in the hospital now; she appeared to be stable; yes, the reports were indeed true that she had a dog and, yes, dogs can carry Ebola; no, the fate of the dog wasn’t certain.

These facts out of the way, conversation eventually shifted elsewhere. Neighbors asked the reporters where they came from and whether they were enjoying their stay in Dallas.

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They hoped the reporters were enjoying our city.

***

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It’s been a weird few weeks in Dallas since Duncan’s diagnosis became public knowledge on Sept. 29. Scenes like the one outside Pham’s aparmtent have become the awkward norm.

Dallasites have become fairly Ebola-aware. They know enough not to totally freak out, but they know enough to be concerned, too. They’re not taking the news badly, but they’re not exactly taking it well.

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More than anything, the news has turned Dallasites into a mostly disheartened lot, annoyed that their city has had to serve as the first line of defense against Ebola’s march upon the West.

“It’s so embarrassing that this is happening in Dallas,” sighed one of Pham’s Marquita Avenue neighbors early on Sunday evening. The 25-year-old nonprofit worker, who lives in the building next to Pham’s and asked that her name not be used, had stopped into the San Francisco Rose, the bar on the corner of her block, to take a break from the media hype going down outside of her apartment building. “Why couldn’t it have been Oklahoma or West Virginia? Why Dallas? Dallas isn’t some backwoods city.”

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Perhaps not. And there are perks to that: At least it meant that officials would waste no time in trying to contain the outbreak. At around 5 a.m. on Sunday, the woman’s roommate had awakened to policemen knocking on her apartment door, alerting her to the news of Pham’s infection before any media statements were released. They informed her that a hazmat company would be coming through shortly to disinfect the area, both inside the building and out.

The company tasked with this effort, called simply The Cleaning Guys, is the same crew that the city entrusted with disinfecting the apartment where Duncan had stayed prior to his own admittance at Texas Presbyterian, in the nearby Ivy Apartments in the Vickery Meadow neighborhood. The Ivy Apartments, it’s worth pointing out, has now been upgraded to featured-landmark status on Google Maps.

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By the time the woman returned to her home on Sunday afternoon, after a night spent at her boyfriend’s and a morning spent discovering via Twitter that it was a building on her block where Pham resided, her own building had already been disinfected. There were other reassurances: Overnight, her landlord had sent out an email to the building’s residents telling them that they needn’t worry; somewhere along the line, City of Dallas workers had distributed packets filled with Ebola information pamphlets to each apartment in the complex. These calming efforts appeared to be working.

“It was mostly about the pets,” she said of those pamphlets and remarking that, among her neighbors, the fate of their animals was of peak concern. “Me, I’m not afraid of anything. I know how to handle it. I know how it’s transmitted. My bigger concern is the media.”

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Matt, a bartender at the San Francisco Rose, echoed that sentiment. A few minutes prior, he’d escorted from the bar a cameraman seeking a shot of these in-need-of-a-break neighbors.

“This is a normal day here,” he said. “We’re hit-or-miss. The Cowboys game is helping. There’s no extra crowd. It’s just guys like that. Otherwise, this has not affected us whatsoever.”

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“Everyone’s acting normal,” the woman confirmed. “I just didn’t want to walk in front of the cameras looking like this. I just finished working out; if I’m going to be in front of the cameras, I wanna look like Beyoncé.”

The cameras, however, are everywhere. Out on the street corner, a Dallas police officer can’t help but laugh about it.

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“I got a call earlier with a resident complaining that one of the news copters was flying too low,” he said. “What am I supposed to do about that? Use smoke signals?”

***

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It’s minor annoyances like these—the impediments on their day-to-day activities—that seem to be of chief concern to Dallas residents. For the majority of the 1.25 million that live within the city limits, life goes on.

When an especially fierce rainstorm cut through the region two weeks back, leaving huge swaths across the city without power, local Ebola hysteria was put on near-complete pause. Now, fallen branches remain piled up on lawns throughout East Dallas neighborhoods, but power has since returned. And Ebola, in turn, has returned to the top of the local talking-points heap.

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Questions still abound about Ebola in these parts. Pham and Vinson’s diagnoses only raise more of them. CDC director Frieden’s tone has changed; he no longer seems certain about the disease’s containment among treatment providers. Medical records now reveal that health-care workers wore no protective gear in their initial two days’ worth of dealings with Duncan. Then nurses union National Nurses United, meanwhile, has gone on the offensive and accused the hospital of having “no protocol” in place for Ebola treatment.

Few here in Dallas seem sure of how to react. Are the calm too cavalier? Are the concerned just paranoid? Most seem to have settled on a sarcastic middle ground.

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Back outside of Pham’s apartment, as one curious group of gawkers burned out, another arrived to replace it. The same scene played out: Staring at the empty, largely inactive building in unison breeds familiarity; neighbors meet one another for the first time; facts are shared once more from the media members still hanging around; rumors are dispelled; gallows humor inevitably rears its head.

“Dallas is known for two things,” one especially sullen passerby announced to anyone who’d listen. “The JFK assassination and, now, Ebola.”

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“Don’t forget the Dallas Cowboys,” another resident said, winking at the media types while leaning on the bicycle he’d taken to get here.

“No one cares about them unless they’re winning,” the first man responded, dismissively waving off the second.

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“Well, they’re winning right now,” that second man said with a smile, happily reporting that the Cowboys were en route to their fifth win of the 2014 season, holding a lead on the defending champion Seattle Seahawks. (They went on to win, 30-23.)

After a few middling seasons from the revered hometown team, a few of the neighbors raised their eyebrows in surprise at the news. The first man just frowned.

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For a minute, everyone’s minds drifted elsewhere.

Then Ebola took center stage once more: “Has anybody seen anyone go near that hazmat bin?” asked the second man, smiling. “It’s got to be a prop, right?”

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