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Ebola Response Takes Center Stage at Forum

Nov. 18, 2014

UT Dallas Ebola Forum panel

From left: Dallas schools Superintendent Mike Miles, Dr. Daniel Varga, chief clinical officer and VP of Texas Health Resources, Richardson Mayor Laura Maczka, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and Zachary Thompson, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services.

As Dallas dealt with the first Ebola case diagnosed in the United States, public officials faced many challenges, from logistical issues, to tracking people who might have been exposed to the virus, to communicating effectively with residents of North Texas.

UT Dallas recently played host for a community forum sponsored by The Dallas Morning News that featured a panel of scientists, physicians, and local and state officials discussing those challenges and the lessons learned after dealing with the deadly disease.

About 300 people attended “Vital Lessons: How Dallas Confronted the Ebola Challenge,” which was held in the Edith O’Donnell Arts and Technology Building lecture hall on Nov. 5.

Texas officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first U.S. case of Ebola in Dallas on Sept. 30. The patient, who was exposed to the virus in Liberia before traveling to Texas, died at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas on Oct. 8. Two local nurses who cared for the patient also contracted the disease, but have since recovered. No new cases in Dallas have since been identified. Dallas was declared Ebola-free Nov. 7 when the last of the people who potentially were exposed to the virus were released from monitoring.

Dr. Seema Yasmin

Dr. Seema Yasmin, a UT Dallas public health professor and staff writer for The Dallas Morning News, chatted with an audience member after the forum.

During the forum, an editor and four health and science writers from the Morning News posed their own questions, as well as those from the audience and Twitter users, to 10 panelists (see list). Topics ranged from a review of how the hospital and health care workers handled the Ebola patients to myths about how the disease is transmitted and the status of vaccine development.

Dr. Seema Yasmin, a UT Dallas public health professor, former CDC epidemiologist and staff writer for The Dallas Morning News, was among the journalists moderating the forum. She asked about inconsistent public messaging during the crisis, and wanted to know what officials learned about effective public communication and about aligning those messages with scientific facts.

Panelist and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said that any time people hear the phrase “out of abundance of caution,” that means “someone is going to disregard science. ... I think we want to avoid doing things out of an abundance of caution and just stick with the science.”

Questions also arose about a state task force’s choice of Methodist Campus for Continuing Care in Richardson as a designated Ebola treatment center for North Texas. The facility was revamped to serve as a 10-bed isolation unit. Health care professionals from Parkland Memorial Hospital and UT Southwestern Medical Center will staff it as needed.

Laura Maczka, mayor of Richardson and a member of the panel, spoke about how she and her colleagues educated the surrounding community about the nature of the facility and addressed potential fears.

“Since this was in the middle of a neighborhood, we wanted to be informed and be sure there would be no safety concerns for nearby residents,” Maczka said. “We met with the hospital administrators and were provided information that gave us a good level of confidence that those who would be providing care would be able to safely treat patients, should they arrive.”

The mayor and her team devised a communications plan to keep the city informed, focusing on science over sensationalism.

“Our next step was working with the hospital and its partners to ensure the community was informed. Public education and transparency is important in building understanding and trust, and we knew it was important to tell people what was happening,” Maczka said. “As we did so, we saw the spectrum going from fear, to ‘why us, why would you say yes?,’ to understanding, to education, to compassion, and then, candidly, to being proud that in Richardson, Texas, we have the ability to isolate 10 patients. Maybe it’s Ebola, maybe it’s measles — we don’t know what it’s going to be. But to have that particular facility in our community ended up being an asset for the community.”

Elizabeth Ziegler is a Eugene McDermott Scholar and a senior biology major at UT Dallas who is interested in a career in microbiology or public health. She attended the forum and said the panel was well-rounded and designed to handle a variety of questions from the public.

“I was impressed by Mayor Laura Maczka’s efforts to increase community buy-in through communication,” Ziegler said. “It is often said that public health is a multidisciplinary field, but I think the forum gave me a new appreciation for that message.”

Media Contact: Amanda Siegfried, UT Dallas, (972) 883-4335, [email protected]
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected]


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