SC teachers’ return from West Africa raises Ebola concerns

08/13/2014 9:56 PM

08/13/2014 9:59 PM

After the recent return of several Beaufort County School District teachers from West Africa — where the biggest Ebola outbreak in history continues its spread — district officials say they are working with individuals who might have been exposed to infectious diseases.

Two or three teachers have returned from African nations stricken by Ebola shortly before the start of the school year Aug. 18, according to school board Chairman Bill Evans. He added that he does not know what they were doing there or if their travels might have exposed them to the deadly virus.

The World Health Organization reports that as of Wednesday, the number of confirmed, suspected and probable Ebola cases had grown to 1,975, with 1,069 deaths.

Individuals working in areas or with people who had become ill with the virus are at higher risk for contracting it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, people who were just in affected countries but not exposed to any one with Ebola are considered to be at much lower risk, CDC spokesman Joel London said.

Superintendent Jeff Moss would not acknowledge whether teachers had recently returned from that region nor provide any information on the nature of their visit.

“These teachers have recently come back, and I would hope that they are going to get themselves checked out to make sure there is not an issue there,” Evans said. “It was simply brought to the board that we had this situation, and I trust in how the district is dealing with it.”

While Moss said federal health-privacy laws prevent him from confirming the situation, he said the district has a protocol for staff members and students who might have been exposed to a communicable disease. He added that principals often know if any one in their school is doing mission work or educational experiences, and thus might need to go through the process.

It includes a physician’s statement and documentation that shows they were cleared through Customs and Border Protection to enter the country, Moss said.

The CDC is working with Customs to screen people traveling from affected countries for symptoms of Ebola — fever, severe headache, muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhea, or unexplained bleeding. Those showing symptoms are quarantined, according to London. Those exhibiting no symptoms are advised to self-monitor for 21 days after leaving the country and seek medical attention if their condition changes, London said.

The process outlined by Moss will not be found in writing as a policy, he said, but is just a procedure he uses as superintendent. If someone refused to provide the required information, he said he would handle that on an individual basis.

He would not say if the district is currently using this process with any employees.

“If it’s a disease listed by the health department or CDC, it’s not really an option for them to not provide that information,” Moss said. “The feeling I have is that they have to prove they are not infectious to others they have contact with.”

He said the district normally cannot require any one to receive medical testing unless there is a strong recommendation from a health organization.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is recommending that individuals arriving within 21 days from travel to an outbreak-affected country be screened for any symptoms or exposure risks.

With the prevalence of students and adults who travel to Africa for humanitarian and mission work, state Department of Education spokesman Dino Teppara said, “We are greatly concerned about the outbreak of Ebola and encourage anyone traveling to and from Africa to refer to DHEC’s recommendations.”

Evans said he thinks district- or school-level administrators have urged the Beaufort County teachers who recently returned from West Africa to get tested. He added that any one traveling from that region at this time likely would choose to get tested of their own volition.

Several other Beaufort County schools, including Hilton Head Christian Academy and Beaufort Academy, said they were not aware of any students or staff who had traveled to West Africa this summer. However, Bethany Byrne of Beaufort Academy added that they would ensure any potentially exposed individuals are healthy and cleared before returning to school.

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