The Ebola media craze has finally reached higher education, and Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, is responding appropriately, without fueling the news and social media paranoia.
Earlier this week, media reports indicated that the second healthcare worker diagnosed with Ebola in Dallas, Texas, had recently visited Ohio and stayed with three Kent State employees, who are also the patient’s relatives. The patient is also a Kent State graduate. The university directed those three exposed employees to stay home, and a media frenzy ensued.
Kent State reacted swiftly to media speculation, posting a statement on the university website, holding a press conference and sharing updates on social media. Kent State President Beverly Warren has also used her Twitter account to communicate how the university is addressing the issue and speculation.
Tara Smith, a Kent State associate professor of epidemiology, posted her take on the situation at Kent State: Here’s What It Looks Like When Ebola Fear Comes to the Heartland. “When news broke, the university immediately commenced an ‘all hands on deck’ response,” she writes, adding that the response had been met with mixed reviews on campus.
From my distant perspective, I think Kent State is doing everything right. The response was swift yet measured. Social media is playing a critical role. Campus leaders are taking a proactive approach to communicating.
Still, the media attention continues.
“Unfortunately,” writes Smith, “the worst part of the situation has indeed been the news media. Radio stations suggested that Ebola would be spread far and wide around Kent and Cleveland, that the plane the patient flew on should have been nuked and never used again, baggage handlers at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport should be quarantined because ‘they may have touched her suitcase’ and that everyone was at risk, no matter how tenuous their connection to the area and the patient.”
The media attention may have a silver lining. A MediaMiser post from earlier this month suggests that the increased media attention “could be a good thing for overall efforts to fight the smouldering outbreak in West Africa.”
It seems they finally have it.
Yet a week or so since that post, U.S. media attention has shifted markedly from the crisis in Africa to the cases in the U.S. Even as Americans become more aware of Ebola, we are still confused about how the disease is transmitted.
For higher education institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere, we find ourselves with an opportunity to educate and communicate. With many international students studying on our campuses, we are targets of fearful U.S. citizens who may wonder whether students from other countries or professors returning from abroad might be carriers of the disease. We will need to communicate rationally about the potential concerns surrounding Ebola in our countries, how we are equipped to address the potential of exposure and what precautions we are taking to minimize risk. We also have the opportunity to help educate the public. We will have ample opportunity to do so, because this concern is not likely to go away any time soon.
Related: From The Chronicle of Higher Education: As Ebola Fears Touch Campuses, Officials Respond With an “Excess of Caution”.