With masks for hospital staff in desperately short supply, New Jersey’s head of emergency management sent a dire plea to public school superintendents statewide: Please provide any unused personal protective equipment that school nurses stockpiled during the 2014 Ebola virus scare.
“We’re not asking for it all, but knowing that the PPE that they purchased in the wake of Ebola is sitting there, this is, as the governor says, ‘all hands on deck,' " New Jersey’s police superintendent, Col. Patrick Callahan, who also serves as the state’s director of emergency management, said earlier this week.
On Monday, as coronavirus cases climbed to 2,000 in the nation’s most densely populated state, Callahan sent a memo to superintendents in all 584 school districts: “The shortage of PPE is dire, and it not only puts our healthcare workers and other first responders at risk, but it also puts vulnerable patients and victims at risk. New Jersey schools can help."
Callahan’s SOS is an example of how officials in states across the country are scrambling to get their hands on N95 masks, impermeable gowns, single-use shoe covers, and hooded face shields ahead of an advancing surge in COVID-19 cases.
It was unclear Wednesday how many superintendents heeded the call; a spokesperson for Gov. Phil Murphy did not immediately return The Inquirer’s request for an accounting.
Concerns over an Ebola virus outbreak in the United States seem outsized in the context of the escalating coronavirus crisis. More than 450,000 people nationwide have tested positive for COVID-19. New Jersey on Wednesday reported 4,402 confirmed cases, with 62 virus-related deaths.
In 2014, only 11 people were treated for Ebola in the entire nation, two of whom died. All but four contracted the disease outside of the U.S., specifically while in West African countries at the center of the outbreak, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fears peaked nationally after a nurse who helped treat an Ebola patient in Dallas got infected in October 2014; she recovered.
At the time, New Jersey’s health and education officials decided to take no chances. They distributed information about how Ebola spreads and how to recognize symptoms in students, such as vomiting blood. They also recommended that school nurses order masks, gloves, and gowns to protect themselves.
Public school nurses have been a first line of defense against communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis and scabies, since the early 1900s. But advising school nurses to stock up on personal protective equipment in case of Ebola was “total overkill and not necessary,” said Esther Chernak, an infectious-diseases specialist and associate professor at the Drexel University College of Medicine.
“There’s something to be said for thinking about potential for transmission in schools, but in terms of Ebola disease, it’s transmitted by a virus that’s spread through close contact with blood and body fluid and it is most contagious when people are at the latest stages of disease — you know, quite ill,” Chernak said Wednesday. “Those are not kids in school.”
Unlike Ebola, the coronavirus is spread “very efficiently” and “easily through exposure to respiratory droplets,” and appears to have a “pre-symptomatic phase,” in which people don’t yet feel sick but are highly infectious. COVID-19 poses much more of a threat to U.S. residents, said Chernak, director of Drexel’s Center for Public Health and Readiness and Communication.
“We didn’t have a lot of people walking around with Ebola virus in community settings," she said.