Sometimes fear can be dispersed with good, solid information. I’m not a health care professional, but I am an environmental lawyer, so I will focus on the part of the process and law about which I have expertise. This post is a timeline of what happens to a person’s property when that person is diagnosed with Ebola, with details from the local cases as examples. Here’s what will happen, probably mostly the same in every case.
1. A test result indicates someone has tested positive for the Ebola virus. You don’t have to worry about not knowing the identity of someone who has tested positive for Ebola. The activities described below, and the knowledge of the neighbors as to who lives in what residence, should provide plenty enough information to disclose the identity of the patient.
2. Within one to three hours, police and first responders will set up a staging area close to the person’s residence. They first stand guard at the residence to prevent ingress and egress. Nobody in, nobody out. If other persons are there, they probably will load them up in an ambulance and send them to a health care facility to be tested for Ebola. This will take time, depending on how the first responders want to isolate these individuals.
3. During this same time frame, police will begin making autocalls, passing out fliers, and going door to door to contact the neighbors of the infected person. In Nina Pham’s case, they contacted a 4 block area. The police will tell the neighbors about the Ebola diagnosis and warn them that a hazmat crew will be on the scene shortly, do not be alarmed. In Amber Vinson’s case, the notice said:
THIS IS AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE FROM THE CITY OF DALLAS. Please be advised that a health care worker who lives in your area has tested positive for Ebola. This individual is in the hospital and isolated. Precautions are already in process to clean all known potential areas of contact to ensure public health. While this may be concerning, there is no ongoing danger to your health. The virus does not spread through casual contact. The City of Dallas is working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dallas County, Dallas Independent School District, and Community Leaders to protect your health. For more information please call 311 or Dallas County Health and Human Services at 214-819-2004. The reverse side of this flier contains relevant information regarding the Ebola virus. [the reverse contains 11 bullets of information about Ebola, from the CDC]
4. In a few more hours, a hazmat crew will decontaminate the exterior of the patient’s building.
5. During this same time period, a hazmat crew will show up at the hospital and decontaminate the vehicle the patient used to drive to the health care facility.
6. Several more hours will pass while the police continue to prevent ingress and egress to the building, then the hazmat crew that will decontaminate the interior of the residence will arrive, and begin their work. For the Liberian Duncan, this took 15 people 4 days. They filled 140 55-gallon barrels with everything-EVERYTHING-inside the residence, down to the concrete floors and paint on the walls. They cut up the mattresses and large items of furniture so they would fit in the barrel. The hazmat crew then fit the barrels into 27 containers, and sealed them shut.
7. A biohazard materials shipping company will then come, load the containers, and ship them via truck, over roads, to a disposal company. They will load the sealed containers into the incinerator, and the incinerator, reaching temps of 1,500 to 2100 degrees, will reduce the sealed containers and their contents to ash, plenty hot enough to destroy any Ebola. The disposal company will then load the ash in required packaging, and ship it to a landfill that holds a permit authorizing it to accept biohazardous material.
8. Meanwhile, the patient will hopefully be recovering. Upon being discharged, however, the patient will walk back into a residence with literally nothing inside. No furniture, curtains, carpet, blinds, TVs, phones, food, small appliances, dishes, pots, pans, plates, memorabilia, pictures, art, wall hangings, clothes, shoes, belts, jewelry, literally nothing.
9. The health department will send the bill for the decontaminations (residence and vehicle) to the person whose residence and car was just decontaminated. But at least the former patient has their life.
All through this process, the owners and occupants of these buildings have rights, but they must be asserted at the right time, and that means very quickly. If you become the patient, I suggest you keep the focus on restoring your health.
If, on the other hand, you are the landlord of the contaminated property, or the investor, or maybe the lender, you may want to consider engaging a qualified environmental attorney immediately upon learning your property is going to be decontaminated, to protect your property (and pocketbook) as much as possible.