Health officials attempt to calm public fears about Ebola

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PARIS — The director of the Oxford County Emergency Management Agency said Friday that although residents should be aware of developments in the spread of Ebola, they should be more focused on how to prevent contracting the flu.

“All eyes are on Ebola, but the bigger worry right now is the flu,” Director Allyson Hill said.

Influenza can lead to hospitalization and sometimes death. It has already hit the midcoast area of Maine, she said.

Maine has had no known cases of Ebola.

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Even with Thursday’s announcement that a doctor who recently returned to New York City after treating Ebola patients in West Africa tested positive for the virus, local emergency and health care workers say there is no immediate cause for concern.

Planning has been underway for the past several months in the Oxford Hills area to address Ebola, should the need arise, officials said.

Hill said she and scores of other emergency management officials, health care workers and first responders attended a workshop in Lewiston on Thursday to get the latest update on protocols for handling Ebola and other infectious diseases on a regional basis.

At Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway, Timothy A. Churchill, president and CEO of Western Maine Health, said Friday that teams of senior leadership, physicians, infection prevention, EMS and clinical leaders have been meeting since July to prepare for what he called “the unlikely event” that the hospital is presented with an Ebola case.

In a statement released Friday, Churchill said the risk of a patient arriving at the hospital with the Ebola virus is low, but hospital staff have been working diligently to monitor and test their preparedness in the event that should happen.

“Stephens Memorial Hospital is fortunate to have the level of expertise and resources available to us, not only through our physicians, nursing, infection prevention and EMS staff, but also through Maine Medical Center, MaineHealth and the state Center for Disease Control and Prevention,” he said.

Churchill said educational sessions continue to be conducted with staff, including general Ebola education, employee forums and sessions to define roles and responsibilities, as well as drills on how to properly put on and take off personal protective equipment.

The concern over how to address the issue is not limited to health care workers.

Maine Education Commissioner Jim Rier advised Maine school administrators and others Thursday that some Maine educators traveled to Dallas last week to participate in an assessment conference.

Rier said that given the national attention on Dallas because of the three confirmed cases of Ebola there, some people residing in the districts where the educators work have raised concerns. He told administrators that communication is key to calm any fears in the public.

“We all share a commitment to the health and safety of everyone in our school communities. While it is important we always take precautions to protect ourselves and our students from infectious diseases, it is also important to make sure communications by officials and the media increases awareness rather than anxiety,” he said in a statement to school administrators.

SAD 17 Superintendent Rick Colpitts said Friday that none of the SAD 17 educators attended the conference in Texas because the budget does not generally allow for out-of-state professional development, he said.

Colpitts said only one employee has been out of state recently on a work-related trip. That employee was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a Distinguished Principal in Washington, D.C., where no known cases of Ebola have been reported.

Rier said he reached out to school administrators with basic information from state and federal Centers for Disease and Prevention because of numerous inquiries from school leaders and to help them communicate more effectively with parents and the public.

On Friday, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention launched a new website, www.maine.gov/ebola, to provide the latest information to health care providers and residents about guideline updates and developments regarding preparedness and response to potential suspected cases of Ebola.

The bottom line, Hill said, is that residents should be aware that protocols have been developed on a regional basis to address any Ebola diagnosis, but the likelihood that it will become a threat in Oxford Hills is minimal.

Her advice to concerned residents is simple: “Be as vigilant as you would to not contract the flu,” she said. “We’re in that season. This is the more common concern. Take typical flu precautions, be vigilant, pay attention, wash your hands often.” 

ldixon@sunjournal.com

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