FREEPORT, Maine — Freeport Middle School was on high alert Wednesday after one student falsely told another student that her father was being evaluated for the Ebola virus after testing positive for a rash.
The student who heard the rumor then told her parents, who contacted school officials. Administrators immediately separated the student who said her father was being tested from others and contacted the Maine Center for Disease Control, Freeport Middle School Principal Raymond Grogan said Thursday.
According to an email sent Wednesday afternoon by Grogan to families of all the middle school’s students, school staff “acted as if the student had been exposed to Ebola for the safety of all students (until we knew otherwise), and second, we began investigating the validity of the rumor.”
Administrators contacted the girl’s parents and the superintendent’s office. After the school nurse interviewed the student, CDC officials said “fairly quickly” that they were “comfortable” that there was no public health concern.
“The student’s father has no symptoms of Ebola, nor is he being tested for the virus,” Grogan said in the email to parents.
“I wanted the CDC to sign off that they were comfortable,” he said. “Obviously, they were completely comfortable [that no health risk existed].”
Ebola is an often fatal virus, the spread of which has reached epidemic proportions in west Africa. The first patient diagnosed with the illness in the United States died earlier this week. The federal Centers for Disease Control reports that the chance of an outbreak in the U.S. is “very low.”
The school followed a general protocol for any emergency, such as a bomb threat, Grogan said, noting that while the story seemed unlikely, it had to be taken seriously.
Maine Department of Education spokeswoman Samantha Warren said Thursday that protocol if a communicable disease is suspected is for local school officials to contact the Maine CDC for guidance, and “it sounds like [that] is exactly what this school did.”
Grogan said most students weren’t aware of the situation until after it was over, when administrators “gave kids a heads-up so if they heard the rumor, they would know it was not true.”
Maureen Qualls of Freeport, whose son attends the middle school, said Thursday morning that she was comforted to know the school department took such quick action.
“They were on it right away,” she said. “Mr. Grogan spoke to [the students] in the morning and explained that they were on it.”
Qualls wonders about the student’s motivation to tell the story but said the constant news about the devastating disease may have prompted it.
“I think they’re bombarded with whatever’s on TV,” she said.
Grogan would not comment on any possible motivation, nor would he say whether disciplinary action was taken against the student who said her father was being tested for the disease.
He encouraged parents to assure their children that there was no safety concern and emphasize to them the dangers of sharing inaccurate information and potentially causing a public health scare.
And while infectious disease specialists say panic “is just not appropriate,” it’s still too early to tell if Maine will see patients with Ebola.
“Maine has an international airport, and they have already transported patients with Ebola into the Bangor area; however, full precautions are being used,” said Dr. August Valenti, an infectious disease specialist and hospital epidemiologist at Maine Medical Center in Portland.
“Maine’s immigrant population is not composed of folks from the areas of west Africa we’re concerned about, but it is possible we’re going to see it,” he said. “But it’s not as likely as Chicago or New York.”
Valenti said Maine’s medical community is prepared to deal with cases of Ebola if they are detected in the state.
“We’ve been working for months to get facilities prepared for the potential reception of someone — a visitor or a traveler coming back from one of these countries with potential exposure,” he said. “But it would be unfair to say there’s a low likelihood. We just don’t know.”
Calls and emails to the Maine CDC were not immediately returned on Thursday.