Spreading the facts about Ebola

Last week, some Maine educators traveled to Dallas, Texas to participate in an assessment conference. Given the national attention currently on that city because of the three confirmed cases of Ebola there, some have raised concerns in the districts these educators are returning to.

We all share a commitment to the health and safety of everyone in our school communities. While it is important we always take precautions to protect ourselves and our students from infectious diseases, it is also important to make sure communications by officials and the media increases awareness rather than anxiety.

As your Commissioner of Education, I’ve been hesitant to reach out to you about Ebola because I did not want my doing so to create more concern about a disease for which Maine has had no reported cases or contacts. However, because of the multiple inquiries our Department has received from school leaders, I did want to provide some basic information from our State and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that will hopefully help you communicate more effectively with parents and the public.

It is important to remember that according to the U.S. CDC, Ebola can only be transmitted to an individual through direct contact with the blood or bodily fluids of someone who is showing symptoms of this illness. To date, the only individuals in this country who have tested positive have had direct contact with someone who was ill and symptomatic.

The Maine CDC is in daily contact with the U.S. CDC and is informed of any Ebola concern for residents of, and travelers to, Maine. There are currently no contacts of Ebola cases traveling to Maine from an area of concern, including the Maine teachers and administrators who recently visited Dallas. Our Department, via the Commissioner’s Office and our School Nurse Consultant Nancy Dube, will continue to remain in close contact with Maine CDC and will reach out to schools with new information as it becomes available and is pertinent. Please also know that in the unlikely event that your students or staff members were exposed to an infectious disease like Ebola, the health and safety exceptions of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) would allow the appropriate officials in your school community to be notified so action could be taken to protect others.

In the meantime if you have any questions, you can contact Nancy at 624-6688 or nancy.dube@maine.gov.  In addition, the Maine CDC will be launching an improved website later today at www.maine.gov/ebola that will contain up-to-date information.  The U.S. CDC’s website has significant information as well and can be found at www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola. Please feel free to download this fact sheet to share with parents and the public. Our school safety and security partner Safe Havens International has also written an informative blog entry and posted a podcast on ways to channel the current attention on Ebola into meaningful biological incident planning.

Additionally, as we enter cold and flu season, I want to remind you of the basic steps you and Maine’s students can take to protect against most infectious diseases:

Individuals should:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • Cover your mouth with elbow when coughing or sneezing
  • Stay home when ill
  • Do not touch the blood or body fluids (like urine, feces, saliva, vomit or sweat) of people who are sick.
  • Do not handle items that may have come in contact with a sick person’s blood or body fluids, like clothes, bedding, needles or medical equipment
  • See your healthcare provider if you are ill

School districts should:

  • Review sanitation procedures in schools and ensure safe cleaning practices of all public surfaces as cold and flu season begins
  • Encourage students (via families)/staff to stay home when ill
  • Expect to receive guidance from Maine CDC/U.S. CDC on surveillance measures as needed (via school nurses)