Ebola Panic Hits TV News Divisions: Coworkers "Wave and Keep on Going"

Ebola Panic - H 2014
Courtesy of ABC

Ebola Panic - H 2014

ABC News chief health and medical editor Richard Besser opens up about his trips to Liberia

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Journalists are accustomed to putting themselves in dangerous situations. But with the Ebola virus crisis in West Africa has come widespread trepidation among the public as well as the colleagues of reporters covering the story in Liberia.

Infected NBC News freelance cameraman Ashoka Mukpo has been quarantined and is receiving treatment at Nebraska Medical Center, one of four hospitals in the U.S. with biocontainment units and the specialty training to care for Ebola patients. And while Mukpo is improving, Dr. Nancy Snyderman — NBC News' chief medical editor, who worked briefly with Mukpo in Liberia — recently made headlines for breaking a voluntary quarantine to go on a take-out food run near her home in Princeton, New Jersey. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams read a prepared statement from Snyderman apologizing for the lapse on the Oct. 13 broadcast. But the infection of a nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas who was treating Liberian Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan, who died Oct. 8, has spurred a new wave of panic. 

ABC News chief health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser, an infectious disease specialist and the acting director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during the similarly sensationalized swine flu outbreak in 2009, tells THR that he understands the widespread fear. “But the big misconception about Ebola is that there's risk to people in America. And that's just not the case.”

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Besser and his colleagues in the medical field do expect more Ebola cases in the U.S. as aid workers continue to return from West Africa. But they point out that the U.S. health care system is far better equipped to deal with Ebola than the one in West Africa, where over 4,400 people already have died in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, according to the World Health Organization. And news divisions have been vigilant about training reporters in the field about proper personal protection while on assignment in the region.

Still, notes Dr. Jonathan LaPook, chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News With Scott Pelley, "What happened in Dallas is disquieting. You have a nurse who followed protocol and she gets infected. But this is not the time to abandon logical thinking and science."

When staff at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta were treating multiple Ebola patients last August, they couldn’t get pizza delivered, couriers refused to handle vials of blood from those patients and the county threatened to shut off the hospital’s access to sewer lines over concerns about waste from patients, The New York Times reported

Read more NBC News' Nancy Snyderman Apologizes for Violating Ebola Quarantine Guidelines

Besser has made two trips to Liberia, returning from a 10-day trek there Oct. 3. He admits his ABC col­leagues were concerned about contact with him and his producer, despite the fact that Ebola cannot be passed through casual interactions. Their gear was decontaminated, and ABC News president James Goldston facilitated a company-wide call with infectious disease experts to address employee concerns. Still, some have avoided contact with Besser, who took precautions never to be in the home of an Ebola patient or facilities where patients are being treated without substantial personal protective equipment.

"I've tried to be very respectful of people's feelings," he says. "If I saw someone I knew, I'd give a wave. If they wanted to come over to talk to me, they could. Most people did; others would wave and keep on going." The special treatment has lingered, he adds: "There was one show where I had to do my own makeup because the makeup artist wasn't comfortable. I didn't have a problem with that — everyone's got a different comfort level." 

But he was disappointed when a planned Oct. 15 appearance at Case Western University was canceled by the institution, which suggested he do the talk via Skype instead.

“I look to universities to promote correct information. I thought that they took an easy way out,” he says.