Life has changed in Monrovia, Liberia. People living in the West African capital used to embrace friends and family, but now keep their distance. Schools have closed, and remain so. Awareness campaigns keep popping up throughout the city, including a sign in December that read, “Don’t give Ebola this Christmas. No touching, no hugging, stay safe.”
Any danger of contracting the Ebola virus is about 5,000 miles away from here, but Jason Humbert, who grew up in Washington, is reminded daily of the disease. He is completing a six-week assignment at a hospital in Monrovia, where he provides medical care to local and international health care workers who contracted Ebola. As a nurse and officer with the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, he has helped eight people fully recover from a disease that often turns deadly.
“This is not only good news for the patients, but a positive sign for other brave health care workers on the front lines to know there are resources for them if they become ill with Ebola,” Humbert said in an email.
Since the Monrovia Medical Unit opened in November, officers have treated 33 health care workers, 15 whom tested positive for Ebola.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Liberia was hit the hardest by Ebola with more than 3,600 deaths, followed by more than 3,150 deaths in Sierra Leone and 1,880 deaths in Guinea.
Humbert, 40, graduated from Washington High School in 1992 and now lives in Ashburn, Va., with his wife, Tina, and their three young children. He holds degrees in nursing, homeland security and public health preparedness, and he previously worked for the Army Nurse Corps and National Institute of Health.
His late mother, Patricia Humbert, was a nurse at Washington Hospital for 40 years.
He said the residents in Liberia have shown “exceptional resiliency” in response to the first outbreak of Ebola in West Africa and also the largest outbreak of Ebola anywhere. Many swapped their daily greetings for “elbow bumps,” he said, and schools are expected to reopen in February.
“The social distancing aspect of helping to prevent the spread of Ebola was a dramatic change in cultural practices for Liberians, who are used to greeting each other with handshakes and hugs,” he said. “Liberia has adapted quite well to these new practices, which has helped with containing the spread of Ebola.”
He said the number of health care worker infections fell in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but rose in Guinea in December.
“The numbers of cases suggest a decline in the epidemic, which is good news. The message now seems to be to not get complacent, to keep vigilant about the social distancing and practices that have helped curb the spread of the virus.”
Humbert works alongside a team of doctors, infection control officers, pharmacists, lab workers and behavioral health specialists. They work 12-hour shifts and sleep in tents with bunk-cots at night.
Officers follow strict regimens to keep themselves safe, such as disinfecting their rubber boots daily, washing their hands with chlorine and wearing full suits in the hot and humid climate. They also don two pairs of gloves, goggles and an apron. Removing the safety gear is a step-by-step procedure that is monitored by other officers.
Health care workers have a higher risk of infection because they come into close contact with the patients and highly infectious bodily fluids, Humbert said.
“Additionally, in their communities, health care workers are usually the first point of contact when someone is sick,” he said. “Health care workers have the potential to be exposed to the virus when they are away from the treatment centers and not in personal protective equipment.”
In addition to his current assignment, Humbert has investigated the market of fraudulent products that claim to treat, cure or prevent Ebola.
USPHS, part of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, is a uniformed service with more than 6,800 public health professions “serving the most underserved and vulnerable populations domestically and abroad,” according to a news release. Officers have responded to public health emergencies including the September 11 terrorist attacks, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Sandy and the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.