Just before dawn Wednesday morning, more than twelve television cameramen had set up their tripods in front of the yellow police tape cordoning off the Village Bend East apartments, a sprawling complex of brown stucco and redbrick buildings between Greenville Avenue and Skillman Street, just north of Lovers Lane, in Dallas. Two news helicopters did slow circles overhead. City officials and health workers had arrived at the 330-unit complex around 4 a.m. and started contacting residents, distributing flyers, and decontaminating common areas. This protocol already had a routineness to it, considering it was the third time in three weeks the city had to inform people about the presence of an Ebola patient in their midst and calm their fears. “We knocked on every single door of the complex,” city spokeswoman Sana Syed told reporters around 8 a.m. as a Dallas police officer on a Segway scooter rolled by behind her.
As the news spread across the nation that a second health care worker had been infected, disbelief and anger set in, prompting local officials to convene a sober press conference at 7 a.m. to discuss this newest case. “It may get worse before it gets better, but it will get better,” Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings told the clump of reporters. County judge Clay Jenkins girded the public for the possibility that additional health care workers who treated Thomas Eric Duncan, “patient zero” in the U.S., could develop Ebola in the coming days. “We are preparing contingencies for more, and that is a very real possibility,” he said.
As the day unfolded, the world learned that the second person to contract Ebola in the United States was Amber Joy Vinson, a 29-year-old registered nurse. She was one of 77 health care workers at Texas Health Presbyterian involved in the treatment of Duncan. The care Vinson provided Duncan before his death, on October 8, included changing his catheter and drawing his blood, according to Duncan’s medical records, which were obtained by the Associated Press. Vinson, who was self-monitoring her temperature twice a day, per CDC protocol, flew to Cleveland on Friday to visit family and plan her wedding. But this past Sunday, the penultimate day of Vinson’s trip, news broke that Nina Pham, another nurse at the hospital who also treated Duncan, had contracted the virus. By Monday evening, Vinson had a low-grade fever of 99.5 degrees, the first symptom of the virus, but flew back to Dallas on Frontier Airlines Flight 1143 after running it by a CDC official. The next morning her temperature had risen and other symptoms had emerged. She was placed in isolation at Presbyterian.
On Wednesday afternoon the Centers for Disease Control decided to transfer Vinson to Emory Hospital, in Atlanta, which has successfully treated three Ebola patients, and so, less than 48 hours after returning from Cleveland Vinson found herself wearing a yellow biohazard suit as she made the short walk from a stretcher up the stairs onto another plane, this time an air ambulance, one of two such specially equipped Gulfstream III jets operated by the Georgia-based Phoenix Air Group. On Thursday morning Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease, told Congress that Pham would be moved later that evening to a two-bed National Institutes of Health isolation facility in Maryland.
The emergence of these three Ebola patients has thrust Dallas into an international media storm, and the corridor between Greenville Avenue and Skillman, parallel north-south arteries in the heart of East Dallas, is where most of the action is currently taking place. Residents in this mostly well-off part of the city are now dealing with a reality where viral hemorrhagic fevers, once the stuff of breathless best sellers, is now part of the evening news, which is being filmed outside their front doors.
It started September 30, when the CDC announced that a man who had flown from Liberia eleven days prior had been diagnosed with Ebola. The media later reported that on September 25, Thomas Eric Duncan came into the ER at Presbyterian, a prestigious private institution located less than a mile from the Ivy Apartments, where he had been staying with his fiancée. He told nurses that he had recently moved from Liberia. But after several hours he was released with antibiotics and a diagnosis of sinusitis, despite his 103-degree fever and travel history. Three days later, he returned via ambulance in grave condition. He died on October 8. Four days after Duncan’s death, while the media was still processing the quick illness and death of the country’s first Ebola patient, news emerged that Pham, an intensive-care nurse in Dallas had the virus, the first person to contract Ebola on American soil.
On the morning of October 12, the notification process was in full swing at Pham’s apartment complex, a tan brick eight-plex in the M Streets, a charming neighborhood four miles south of Presbyterian known for its well-maintained Tudor cottages. By that afternoon dozens of journalists clogged the sidewalks of Pham’s neighborhood, where tree branches downed in a recent squall crowded the sidewalks, awaiting pickup on heavy trash day. A steady stream of interested Dallasites slowly drove by the scene, snapping photos with their smartphones of the building and the throng of reporters. A yellow biohazard barrel sat in the yard. “Ebola central, huh?” one passerby in a burnt-orange UT cap said with a pained grin. A small boy on an orange bike rode down the street in front of the cameras before thinking better of it. “I don’t want to be on TV,” he said as he skittered away. Meanwhile, Dallas County Health and Human Services director Zachary Thompson pulled up in his white SUV with a stack of plastic bags stuffed with Ebola fact sheets and walked door-to-door handing them out to residents or leaving them on door handles.
On the grass on a lawn across the street from the apartment building, someone had placed a small cardboard box resembling the take-out boxes from Whole Foods scrawled with the words “Caution, dog poop.” The worry was that the contents of the box could belong to Pham’s dog, a one-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel named Bentley, who at the time was still locked inside her apartment. (The dog has since been relocated to an area where he can be safely quarantined and cared for.) Ginny Summers, who lives at the edge of the M Streets with her husband, said Wednesday that she hasn’t really noticed any changes in the neighborhood since the news of Pham’s case broke, but she does fret that her dog, Waffles, a tan terrier mix with a penchant for coprophagia, might happen upon one of Bentley’s droppings on their daily walks around the neighborhood. “I am a little bit more careful about watching what she’s eating,” she said.
But by the time I spoke to Summers, most of the media had already left her neighborhood. They had decamped three miles north to Vinson’s complex. When I drove by late Tuesday night, there was one lone reporter left doing a live stand-up in front of Pham’s building. By the next afternoon, when I circled back around on my drive away from the second Ebola patient’s home, he was gone.