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Dallas Judge Leads County's Ebola Response

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland will now be treating Nina Pham. She was the first nurse to contract Ebola after caring for Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas. NIH is one of four facilities especially equipped to deal with highly infectious diseases like Ebola. The second Dallas nurse who tested positive for the virus, Amber Vinson, was transferred last night to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

After learning that Vinson had flown on a commercial airliner to Ohio last weekend, Dallas officials placed restrictions on the movement of the 75 other health care workers who came into contact with Mr. Duncan. The county's highest elected official, Judge Clay Jenkins, directed them not to use public transportation or leave the county.

I spoke today with Jenkins, who's in charge of emergency management for Dallas County. I asked if he expects more staff from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital to test positive with Ebola.

CLAY JENKINS: We are preparing for that contingency, that a number of staff will test positive for Ebola. We hope and pray it doesn't happen, but we must be prepared.

BLOCK: And if that is the case and knowing that two of the nurses already have tested positive for Ebola, what is the lesson? What went wrong?

JENKINS: Well, I've somewhat taken off the rearview mirror as I try to move us forward and stop this American Ebola outbreak right here in Dallas. But you know, clearly the breach was in the use of the PPE's.

BLOCK: The personal protective equipment.

JENKINS: Yes and we just don't know if that was one or more protocol. We know that two people are already sick. We don't know if they both got sick from one breach, or if they got sick from separate breaches. They worked separate shifts.

BLOCK: I want to go back to earlier this month when Thomas Eric Duncan was hospitalized there in Dallas with Ebola. You went to the apartment of his quarantined family members. They'd been in direct contact with him, the apartment hadn't been decontaminated and you went in without wearing any protective gear. And then you drove the quarantined family to their new home. Why did you do that and were you sending a message?

JENKINS: Well, Louise and those three young men were afraid but also brave and handling a situation with grace. I asked the top doctors in the world at the CDC and the top doctors in Texas and the Texas health commissioner if there was any risk at all to me in not wearing that gear. And they said there is zero risk because you can't get Ebola even if Ebola exists in their bodies, you can't get that from an asymptomatic person who hasn't exhibited signs, symptoms and fever yet. So I wanted them to see me as a person and an equal and I wanted to see them as a person and an equal. I had to convince them to leave their house and go to a place they'd never seen before and I wanted to treat them with the same compassion that I would want Louise to treat my family member or me if my family were going through this. If me riding in the car also helped there to be less discrimination against my first responders and their families because there's been a little then I suppose that's a good thing. And if it helped to tamp down public concerns then that's a good thing, too. I am pleased that we have treated the people who are dealing with this terrible disease and the contacts that are waiting to find out whether they've got the terrible disease, the way we ourselves would want to be treated. I think that is by definition, you know, what an elected official should be doing.

BLOCK: You mentioned Louise. Louise was Mr. Duncan's fiancee.

JENKINS: Yes, I'm sorry. Louise Troh was Eric Duncan's fiancee and the three young men's names are withheld for their own privacy.

BLOCK: You mentioned that there has been some discrimination toward folks who have been on the frontlines of this fight. What have you heard and what kinds of alarm - what kind of alarm has been raised in the community?

JENKINS: Well, there are people that are concerned that if they, for instance, go to school with the child of - well, my child for instance - or the child of one of our first responders that their children might get Ebola. And we've had the commissioner of public health, the top Ebola expert in the United States and the Dallas County Medical Society tell them that that is - there's a 0 percent chance and that's not going to happen. Still - a few people worried about that.

BLOCK: There have been a number of absences at schools and I wonder if that's still ongoing, especially at your own daughter's school.

JENKINS: Well, let me say, this is about the public health. It's not about me and it's a hard thing, you know, for my wife and my daughter, but it's not about them either. It's about taking care of the public right now.

BLOCK: Judge Jenkins, you are up for re-election in a few weeks and your opponent, Rep. Ron Natinsky, had some pretty strong words after you went to the apartment and didn't wear protective gear. He said it was a reckless political stunt. He said, I have a problem with you putting - I have a problem with Judge Jenkins putting the people of Dallas County at risk for political reasons. What's your response to that?

JENKINS: You know, right now I'm focused on the public health. I'm not focused on my re-election campaign or politics, as my campaign manager and any number of people will tell you.

BLOCK: Do you think, Judge Jenkins, that the public fears that you were talking about are more understandable because there have been a series - there's been a series of missteps there in Dallas, in terms of the hospital and the care and just what happened with Mr. Duncan and then with the health care workers?

JENKINS: There have been missteps along the way. It's important that we are transparent with the public. The hardest on-the-job day for the mayor of Dallas and the county judge had to be explaining the second - doing the logistics in explaining - when the second and third victim, the two health care workers, Nina and Amber, became ill with Ebola. But we stood up before the federal and state government did and told you exactly what we knew and when we knew it. And that's just something you've got to do. You've got to earn that trust every day. And it's a fog of war sort of a situation and the missteps that people are discussing about some of our partners, tomorrow that may be, you know, may be the county. And it's got to be one team, one fight. We've got to keep people focused on a job. We've got to correct them as quickly as we can and move forward.

BLOCK: Judge Jenkins, thanks very much for your time.

JENKINS: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Judge Clay Jenkins. He's in charge of emergency management for Dallas County. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.