The first wave of people, including the fiancee of Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan, will emerge from a state-ordered, 21-day Ebola quarantine Monday, which should probably spark relief in a region that desperately wants to escape the shadow of the disease.
But church officials are considering extra security for Louise Troh and her sons, and at the children’s school, as fears linger about Ebola across the Dallas-Fort Worth area — and throughout the United States.
Experts who study psychology say the release of 48 people from the Ebola watchlist back into society, and the expected onslaught of news coverage about them shopping at local grocery stores and returning to schools could fuel another wave of irrational fear.
They say the next few weeks could be crucial to understanding whether the hysteria will begin to dissipate or continue to spread as other public and business leaders across the country announce precautions being taken to monitor those with even the slightest interaction — or potential interaction — with the virus.
“Ebola is very much in the public imagination right now,” said Andrew Noymer, a sociologist who studies infectious diseases at the University of California, Irvine. “It’s not a science-based fear.”
Troh issued a statement Sunday thanking the community for its support and asking for privacy as she and her family monitor their health.
“We are so happy this is coming to an end, and we are so grateful that none of us has shown any sign of illness,” she wrote in the statement, which also mourned her fiance, Duncan.
Ebola is a deadly disease that has killed about 4,500 people in West Africa. But the chances of infection in the United States remain extremely low. Only one person has died in the United States, and two medical workers have caught the disease.
Nonetheless, people are still afraid. A Washington Post-ABC News poll last week found that nearly two-thirds of Americans were concerned about a widespread Ebola outbreak. President Barack Obama appointed an Ebola czar, lawmakers have called for travel bans, and late last week, a Caribbean cruise ship held a passenger in quarantine after learning the woman had worked with Duncan’s lab samples at the Dallas hospital where he was treated.
Michael Telch, a professor of psychology who studies anxiety disorders at the University of Texas at Austin, sees many of these steps as overreactions that only perpetuate national anxiety. He said he’s received text messages from his patients at all hours of the night being worried whether they’re going to contract Ebola.
“It’s the bombardment of stories,” he said. “I haven’t seen one story about contracting the flu even though many more people die of the flu than Ebola each year.”
Dallas city officials consider the end of the quarantine as a “critical moment” for the community as part of efforts to contain the disease, but they acknowledge that public concerns remain. Neighbors have literally run away from Troh’s daughter, who is not on the watch list, when she enters and leaves her apartment, according to friends.
George Mason, Troh’s pastor, acknowledged that fears remain in the neighborhood, when asked about reports of rocks being thrown at the family apartment.
“It’s something we can’t control and we’d like to protect them from that as much as possible,” he said.
County Judge Clay Jenkins, the county’s chief executive, urged parents to help welcome Troh’s son back to school.
“Let’s treat this young man like you would want your own child treated,” Jenkins said. “Middle schoolers can be cruel. Let’s not be cruel. These people have been through a terrible ordeal. ... Let’s do what this community is good at, let’s show compassion.”
Jenkins said officials have yet to find adequate long-term housing for Troh and her family. Jenkins said he hoped landlords would be sensitive and rent to the family.
Jon Person, 25, who lives down the street from where Duncan and Troh lived, said he doesn’t think the family should be discriminated against, but he questioned whether 21 days under quarantine is long enough. Much is still unknown about the disease, he said, and he wondered whether the government is withholding information to prevent people from getting more scared.
“It’s a scary thing to think about,” said Person, who was washing his clothes at a laundromat down the street from the apartment that Duncan and his girlfriend shared.
On his way to Wal-Nart with his two sons, Mohammad Sharif, 42, was walking past Sam Tasby Middle School on Sunday, where his daughter goes to school and where at least one student was pulled from classes and monitored for Ebola.
Sharif paused when asked whether he’d be OK with the students returning to school with his 11-year-old daughter. He smiled and said he’d be fine if Troh’s son was in her classroom.
“If the principal and the health department says it’s safe,” he said, “then I believe them.”