What’s Bad About Dallas: Ebola Crisis Recalls Defamation of “the City that Killed Kennedy”

Nurses from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital rally in support of their employer outside the Dallas hospital. (PHOTO CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images)
Nurses from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital rally in support of their employer outside the Dallas hospital. (PHOTO CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images)

Once defamed as “the city that killed Kennedy,” this community used the assassination’s 50th anniversary last year to declare its name cleared once and for all. Now Dallas faces a new libel: Ebola capital of the USA.

“This is the most national attention Dallas has gotten since 1963. It’s not positive attention,” says Darwin Payne, a local historian and former reporter who raced to Dealey Plaza after President John F. Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald.

This crisis also centers around a hospital — not Parkland Memorial, where Kennedy was pronounced dead, but Texas Health Presbyterian. County officials struggling to contain Ebola meet in the old Texas Book Depository building, from which Oswald fired on Kennedy.

Situated mid-continent with neither oil wells nor a navigable port, Dallas may be the nation’s least likely urban success story. And, with the virus’ equally unlikely arrival here last month, the city again must overcome adversity, this time in the form of Ebolaphobia.

On balance, Big D seems to be holding up. Mark Wingfield, a Baptist minister, puts it at “95% calm, 5% panic.”

And City Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates — the daughter of Cowboys’ legend Roger Staubach — says that “after a few days with no new infections, things seem a lot better.”

But, she concedes, “you’re waiting for another shoe to drop.”

The crisis began when a leading local hospital briefly treated and then released Thomas Eric Duncan, a recent Liberian immigrant infected with the Ebola virus, only to have to admit him several days later. After he died, two nurses who treated him — apparently poorly trained or prepared by the hospital — testified positive for the virus.

Things threatened to spin out of control after one of the nurses, who’d flown to Cleveland, was allowed on a flight back to Dallas even though federal officials knew she had treated Duncan and had a low fever. All told, hundreds of people around the country might have been in contact with the three Dallas cases.

Back here at ground zero, the most striking symptoms so far have been fear, recrimination and a confusion that the county’s top elected official, Clay Jenkins, likens to “the fog of war.”

The fear is understandable. Residents have been awakened — often very late or very early, sometimes by a knock on the door, sometimes by a text or the news media — with news that a neighbor has tested positive.

More than a dozen residents of the apartment complex where Duncan was staying, many themselves immigrants, reported being turned away from their jobs, even though they had no contact with him. Many volunteers stopped showing up at social service agencies in the area.

Someone on the location-sharing social-media site Foursquare labeled the section of northeast Dallas that includes Presbyterian and the victims’ neighborhoods as “Ebola, TX.”

After Jenkins entered the apartment where Duncan lived without protective garb and personally drove Duncan’s girlfriend and her family to a secret location for their 21-day incubation confinement, his opponent in the upcoming election blasted him for a “reckless political stunt.”

After some parents at Jenkins’ daughter’s school in affluent Highland Park expressed concern, the school district sent out a note to reassure parents that their children could not contract Ebola through the girl.

Nerves are raw from a pattern of bad news, followed by official reassurances, followed by more bad news. After the second nurse tested positive, Mayor Mike Rawlings finally said the next new case probably was a matter not of if, but when.

Several schools in the area closed Friday for a thorough bleaching, even though none of their students had come within miles of anyone suffering from Ebola. “Totally irrational,” snorts Joseph McCormick, a University of Texas School of Public Health virologist who first studied Ebola in 1976. “It doesn’t take a lot of panic to create uneasiness in everyone.”

Blame for the Ebola outbreak competes with football as the big game in town. The targets include Duncan, for not reporting possible contact with Ebola before entering the country, and immigrants in general. Online calls for a ban on flights from West Africa and a crackdown on illegal immigration — already a hot issue here — have exploded.

The biggest target would have seemed the most unlikely just a month ago.

Texas Health Presbyterian — known locally as “Presby” — has a good medical reputation and great social cachet. The maternity ward is named for Margaret Perot, wife of tycoon and former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot. Ann Bass, a member of one of the state’s wealthiest, most prominent families, chairs the board of the hospital’s corporate parent.

But when Ebola came to town, Presby seemed to fall prey to overconfidence, or even hubris. At a hospital briefing for reporters after Duncan finally was admitted, an epidemiologist contrasted Presbyterian’s ability to succeed against the disease with that of doctors in “primitive locations” in West Africa.

“We have a plan in place. We are well-prepared to deal with this crisis,” said Edward Goodman, a specialist in infectious diseases. “We’re perfectly capable of taking care of this patient with no risk to other people.”

McCormick, the virologist, says that in fact the hospital neither trained nor drilled its employees sufficiently, and had not set up a plan for dealing with the virus.

Some information released by the hospital was incorrect or misleading. The number of health workers exposed to Duncan exceeded 70 — too many, according to infectious disease experts. And some community leaders claim he was released after his first visit for the wrong reasons. For one, “he was the same color as me,” says John Wiley Price, an African-American Dallas county commissioner.

In an op-ed article in the Dallas Morning News, Duncan’s nephew, Josephus Weeks, said that when Duncan first came to the hospital Sept. 25 with a high fever and stomach pains, he told the nurse he’d recently been in Liberia. ”But he was a man of color with no health insurance and no means to pay for treatment, so within hours he was released with some antibiotics and Tylenol,” he wrote.

The hospital denies racism but admits to mistakes: that Duncan’s information about Africa was lost in the shuffle and that he should not have been released. It has launched a public relations offensive, including TV ads and social media posts featuring employees who describe themselves as “Presby Proud.”

But the mistakes also evoked memories of 1963, when, after being arrested for shooting Kennedy, Oswald was himself shot on live national television while in custody at Dallas police headquarters.

Many Americans blamed Dallas as much or more than Oswald for the president’s death, mostly because of its strident political right wing. At a speech earlier that fall, U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson had been shouted down and hit on the head with a sign. He later warned the White House about the “ugly and frightening mood” in the city. But Dallas came back, as it always had, though hard work, entrepreneurial spirit and the gift for self-promotion that had turned an insular cow town into a metropolis in the first place.

Its image benefited from the rise of the Dallas Cowboys — behind quarterback Staubach, they won two Super Bowls in the 1970s and became known as “America’s Team” — to the popularity of the TV series Dallas, which made the place seem glamorous, if immoral; and, to a decades-spanning boom that made it the economic capital of the nation’s fourth-most populous metro area.

Payne says the physical isolation that made Dallas such an unlikely locale for Ebola in 2014 fueled its reputational rebound after 1963: “Dallas always worried that it was isolated. It’s always motivated the city to seek greater recognition.”

Unfortunately, Payne says, it doesn’t matter now that many if not most general hospitals would have stumbled when suddenly and unwittingly confronted with their first Ebola case. It doesn’t matter that an entire city should not be blamed for those mistakes. “This will rub off on Dallas,” he says.

Wingfield’s Wilshire Baptist Church counts the girlfriend Duncan was visiting among its congregants. The minister regards the Ebola crisis with the kind of optimism that made the city great in the first place: “It’s an opportunity to speak a word of faith rather than fear. We can no longer think of Dallas as an isolated, inland place. We’re all part of the global community. We are, in fact, our brother’s keeper.” Even — especially — if he’s an immigrant from Africa with Ebola.

As of the weekend, the two nurses are in special hospital units in Maryland and Georgia; no new cases have been reported since Wednesday; thousands of people around the nation anxiously check their temperatures. And the nation’s putative Ebola capital is officially, if nervously, Ebola-free.

Rick Hampson, The Associated Press

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