Island County Community Health keeping tabs on travelers

Some Island County residents are currently in West Africa and will return under scrutiny for possible Ebola exposure, according to Keith Higman, the county’s public health director.

Higman said staff members keep track of the people in the community who come in for vaccinations prior to traveling abroad, so they know there are county residents currently in the three countries where the epidemic is centered.

In addition, he said he’s heard anecdotally from people in the community who know locals who are presently in West Africa.

Higman explained that the Centers for Disease Control has set up a structured system, based on science, to deal with the returning people.

They all have to enter through one of five designated airports — which are all on the East Coast — where it will be determined if they are symptomatic. Those with symptoms will be treated where they landed.

Those without symptoms will be able to return to their homes. Their home states will be notified; the states will notify the local health departments.

Those returning to Island County, said Higman, will be contacted by health department staff. The county health officer will follow a CDC guidance document in assessing risk for each person.

The risk is based on the possibility of exposure. People who worked in health care systems in West Africa, for example, probably have a greater risk than vacationers. The people higher on the risk scale will receive greater monitoring.

Higman explained that the health officer has the authority under state law to quarantine individuals. The state has three levels of quarantine.

“My guess would be the fatality rate is much lower in this country.”

– Keith Higman, Island County Community Health

The first is voluntary, the second by administrative order of the health officer and the third a court order.

He said the health department would only seek a court order for non-compliant people.

The issue has made headlines after a nurse who returned to Maine after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone refused to stay under quarantine. She tested negative for the deadly disease twice, but is still within the 21-day incubation period.

Higman said the health department hosted a meeting this week about Ebola response with first-responders and staff from both hospitals that cover Island County to ensure everyone is prepared.

Still, he said there’s no reason for panic. He and other health officials were questioning why the disease has gotten so much more attention than other epidemics over the years.

Perhaps it’s the exotic-sounding name, he opined, or the high mortality rate in Africa.

“My guess would be the fatality rate is much lower in this country,” he said, citing the superior public health and health care system.