For local Liberians, the first stateside Ebola case lent new urgency to a tricky double mission: Preach vigilance to the metro area’s community of some 30,000 Liberian natives, the largest outside Africa. Ease anxieties in the wider community and the fallout from them, from Liberian restaurants losing business to Liberians fielding questions from the anxious parents of playmates.
The patient who tested positive for the virus in Dallas had recently flown to the United States from Liberia. Even as Minnesota health officials insisted the case is not cause for alarm, the news sent shock waves through the local West African community and inspired a new outreach campaign to kick off later this week.
“This case in Dallas realized our worst fears,” said Clarence Yaskey, a local community leader who is pursuing a master’s degree in public health. “It makes our work really difficult.”
The Minnesota Department of Health said Wednesday it plans to revisit its Ebola response plan. But officials said recommendations to health care providers and confidence that the state is well-prepared to handle a local diagnosis remain unchanged.
The Ebola crisis in Africa has rocked local immigrant communities for months: They have lost family members to the disease back home, scrambled to get relatives visas to flee the continent and held meetings to reassure their neighbors. In July, a Liberian government official whose wife and three daughters live in Coon Rapids became the first U.S. citizen to die from Ebola in Africa.
After news of the Dallas Ebola case hit Tuesday, community leaders gathered for an emergency meeting at the north metro home of a local imam. They have already encouraged compatriots to postpone trips to West Africa. But now, they conceived of their most ambitious campaign yet — centered on a plea to avoid travel to Ebola-stricken areas.
The message, as community leader Abdullah Kiatamba put it: “If you travel, you expose a whole community to potential backlash and risk the goodwill of the larger community.”
For those who are returning from overseas or welcoming West African relatives, the campaign will stress the importance of staying on the lookout for flu- or malaria-like symptoms and going to the hospital immediately if they appear. Leaders will spread the word via text messages and e-mail blasts; they will visit churches and community events this weekend.
On Tuesday evening, members of the Minnesota African Task Force Against Ebola’s steering committee gathered for their regular meeting in Brooklyn Center City Hall. Yaskey, who worked as a physician in Liberia, delivered his grim weekly update on Ebola in West Africa: Recent reports list more than 6,500 cases and some 3,000 deaths.
On the task force, Liberians have banded together with leaders from the smaller local communities from Sierra Leone and Guinea. Karifa Jalloh, a leader of a Sierra Leonean community of more than 5,000, says its members have also lost relatives to the epidemic in Africa: “The anxiety in our community is as high as it could be right now.”
The mood at the City Hall meeting was more somber than usual Tuesday. Liberian leader Zubah Gayflor Kpanaku said a previously scheduled discussion about fighting Ebola long distance was tinged by fears now that the disease was closer to home: Will family members looking to flee the epidemic have a harder time securing U.S. visas? Will the news out of Dallas bring stigma to Minnesota’s West African community?
Local repercussions already
Before a case was diagnosed in the United States, there were already repercussions locally, leaders say. An employer sent a Liberian man home with orders to see a doctor — though he did not show any symptoms — after hearing a cousin had traveled to Liberia. A mother said a neighbor questioned whether their children should mingle on the playground.
Kellita Whisnant, the owner of Mama Ti’s African Kitchen in Brooklyn Park, estimates customer traffic is down by 50 percent since the Ebola epidemic hit the headlines. She has received calls from loyal customers, most of them U.S.-born, saying they plan to stay away for now. She tries to reassure them: She gets palm oil from Ghana, cassava leaves from the Philippines, collard greens from a local farmers market — and no ingredients at all from Liberia.
“What happened in Texas is only going to heighten these fears,” said Whisnant.
Local public health officials warn against panic.
“This case in Texas changes the playing field a little bit, but the recommendations haven’t changed,” said Kristen Ehresmann, director of the health department’s infectious disease division.
Ehresmann said her department has been “completely inundated” with calls about the Dallas case, but overall, the response among health care partners and contacts in the Liberian community has been measured. She stressed that the lack of an effective health care infrastructure in West Africa led to the spread of the disease. In Minnesota, hospitals would be able to quickly contain and treat a case.
Meanwhile, the Task Force Against Ebola is about to kick off a fundraising drive for medical supplies headed to Africa. A conference on Ebola jointly hosted by St. Paul College and North Hennepin Community College is slated for November, Kpanaku said.
The task force is also recruiting nurses and local volunteers willing to fight the disease in West Africa after receiving training from the Centers for Disease Control. Kpanaku’s wife is among those who have signed up, even as their children have pleaded with her not to go. As a registered nurse, she feels an obligation to help, Kpanaku said.
Still, some community leaders like Kiatamba feel torn about such humanitarian efforts.
“What happened in Texas has raised so much concern and hysteria and paranoia,” he said. “But it’s better to create some alarm to prevent a bigger alarm.”