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In NYC Ebola Plan, a Campaign to Tamper Down Panic

In NYC Ebola Plan, a Campaign to Tamper Down Panic
NYC officials trying to calm down and address fears from residents.

Deserted subways and buses. Kids being kept home from school. Harassment of West African immigrants.

   These are some of the scenarios New York City officials are trying to anticipate as they seek to tamp down the hysteria as well as the virus in the event Ebola hits the nation's most populous, densely packed metropolis.

   "We will not be surprised ... we are ready," Dr. Mary Bassett, the city's health commissioner, said this week as she and other officials of Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration gave The Associated Press a look at the city's plan.

   So far, 133 patients referred to the city's Health Department with Ebola-like symptoms have been cleared and the city has not yet had a confirmed case.

   Bassett said actions would be taken quickly if and when that happens, either as an isolated case or a full-blown outbreak, with Bellevue Hospital designated the main venue for handling Ebola cases. It has dozens of staff at the ready and four isolation rooms established that can quickly expand to 20 if needed.

   Managing the collective fears and anxieties of 8 million people is a more nuanced undertaking. Though the disease is not airborne, its outsized hold on the public's imagination could lead to residents taking dramatic steps to avoid crowded public places, including workplaces, Knicks games or even bars.

   Officials are planning a public service announcement campaign - which could include social media and TV advertising - to reassure New Yorkers that the disease is not easily transmittable and that there is no need to abandon the subway or schools.

   De Blasio has frequently urged calm and ordered a high-profile Ebola response meeting at City Hall last week to reassure New Yorkers that they are managing the impending crisis.

   "The city is speaking with one voice, one set of facts," said Joseph Esposito, head of the Office of Emergency Management. "We hope that people will listen to those facts and not go into hysteria."

   Already, the city has reached out to jittery health care workers and to more than 100 community groups serving the city's West African neighborhoods - including Little Liberia in Staten Island - and were told that immigrants there have felt harassed by those who blamed them for the disease.

   More than 70,000 people from West African nations now call to New York home and officials are trying to prevent the discrimination faced by some Muslims and Sikhs were after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

   For the most part, however, anxieties over Ebola in the city have been relatively low key.

   While the city has seen a slight spike in the number of calls to 311, the city's information line, emergency rooms haven't grown more crowded. Airports workers tasked with cleaning planes staged a strike last week, saying they didn't feel enough precautions were being taken to protect them against Ebola. And some who live in the region have grown leery of public places.

   "I started carrying sanitizer, I wash my hands and I don't shake hands with anyone," said Tonya Fox, who was riding the subway from work. "Basically, I try not to touch stuff."

   Karolina Rijavec, a Manhattan filmmaker said she would try to avoid the subway during the scare and will don surgical mask and gloves if a case is confirmed in the city.

   "Hazmat suits are our 2014 bomb shelter," she said. "New Yorkers were aware of a bad, very bad, medical threat somewhere else in the world. Now I have to face the fact that the threat is so much closer."