MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Before the novel coronavirus outbreak, there was the Ebola epidemic in West Africa but many of the same strategies that were used then are still being used now.
That is according to Dr. Diane Gross, a regional epidemiologist at the Monongalia County Health Department, who was deployed in Sierra Leone, West Africa, during the Ebola crisis. Gross said the same strategies being used a few years ago are being used now because they are time tested methods of containing the spread of a virus.
“These are the classic tools of epidemiology which would be case investigation and then contact tracing,” Gross explained. “And then once we identify people who have been in close contact with the case we isolate the case until they’re no longer infectious and we put the contacts in quarantine to keep them isolated from others, to make sure they don’t develop any signs of the disease.”
These strategies date back to the 14th century, Gross said, when ships arriving in Venice, Italy would have to dock in the harbor and quarantine for 40 days as to avoid spreading the plague. In fact, Gross said, the term quarantine comes from the Latin word for 40, referring to the number of days people were kept in isolation.
Although the strategies may be the same from days of the plague, to Ebola, to COVID-19, Gross said, how they execute them are completely different.
Gross said when she was in Sierra Leone they had to identify cases and contact trace in person, which often meant driving out to meet someone, taking motorcycles or walking often on partially built dirt roads.
However, right now, epidemiologists, like herself, can get in touch with the public and give them vital lifesaving information without even leaving their desks.
“We currently are in a very connected world just about everybody has a cellphone or email address or something that we can identify and get in contact with most of our contacts remotely through the telephone. However, occasionally we have someone who is hard to track down, who doesn’t have voice messaging, who doesn’t answer our calls and we have to send someone out to try and find them from a known address, from information their contacts have given us about where they are and who they’re with and actually go talk to them in person but that’s unusual.”Dr. Diane Gross
With modern technology, the health department can maintain daily contact with those who are infected by sending them text messages or calling to check on them. This allows for a two-way communication system where those in quarantine can reach out and let health officials know if they are having any medical issues or other issues they may need assistance with, Gross said.
So far, Gross said, most people they have been in touch with have been very cooperative and understand the importance of staying at home and self-isolating.
Another difference between the Ebola and novel coronavirus outbreaks is the scale of each crisis. Gross said whereas Ebola was confined to West Africa COVID-19 is a global pandemic and that is why there is a scarcity of resources now that didn’t exist during the Ebola outbreak.
However, Gross said, the guidelines that have been put in place for public safety are effective and help to mitigate the greater risk posed by a global pandemic.
“We know that some people get the infection and are only mildly sick and don’t show any symptoms but yet they could be spreading it so heed those guidelines, stay home, wear the mask and take care of yourself, do things to make sure that you stay in good health so that should you become infected your immune system will be ready to assist,” Gross said. “Get lots of sleep, eat well, exercise, do all those things to stay in good health while we’re going through this crisis.”