​U.S. Emergency Rooms Are Bracing For An Ebola Panic

There have been 5,000 Ebola false alarms since the first case in the U.S. was confirmed on September 30. And if past outbreaks are any guide, expect a growing number of Americans to be making unnecessary visits to hospitals, placing stress on the resources of emergency care facilities.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, initial reports of the swine flu pandemic in 2009 prompted fearful parents to rush to emergency rooms, even in communities where the disease hadn’t yet appeared. The 20 percent increase in ER visits coincided with heightened news reports of the disease.

The author of the study, William McDonnell, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah, was working in clinics back then. As he recounted in a 2010 news article:

“I remember a lot of people just frankly asking me, ‘Is my child going to die?’ even when the children weren’t sick,” he said in an interview. “Some of them were kids with the usual colds; there is never a time in the pediatric population when there isn’t some sort o f viral illness going around. But there was no H1N1 flu in our area, and we had seen almost no flu the preceding two months.”

The Utah experience was recapitulated in emergency departments in other states that were similarly overwhelmed by anxious parents and cranky children, long before any local cases of flu.

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