By JOHN M. GLIONNA
DALLAS, TX – Many have come to the neighborhood known as Five Points to escape. They wait in the low-slung, working-class apartments to find out whether they will be granted asylum and a shot at a new life away from the violence, poverty and disease that scarred the lives they fled in places as far away as Asia and Africa.
On Wednesday, residents here learned that the Ebola virus some of them had left behind in West Africa had crossed the ocean, bringing a familiar fear to their new homes in the United States.
One of those suddenly trapped in medical isolation behind the wrought-iron fence of the Ivy Apartments complex is the fiancee of the Liberian man who this week became the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola outside Africa. The woman, who was not identified, had spent an unknown amount of time with Thomas Eric Duncan, who arrived from Liberia for a visit on Sept. 20.
Stanley Gaye, president of the Liberian Community Assn. of Dallas-Fort Worth, said he talked with the woman, who was staying at home watching developments on the television news with her two children. Workers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been to her house several times, he said. They have advised her to take her temperature frequently and go quickly to the hospital if she develops a fever.
“She’s upbeat. She’s doing well,” Gaye said.
Duncan, who has not been officially identified by U.S. authorities, had fallen sick and sought medical help last week, but was sent home with antibiotics. Initially, authorities said he had come to the ER on Friday, but now they say he arrived after 10 p.m. Thursday.
By Sunday, an ambulance rushed to the Ivy Apartments and took Duncan back to the nearby Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, where he tested positive for Ebola.
There are about 10,000 Liberians living in the Dallas area, many in the Five Points neighborhood. Often referred to among immigrants as the “Ellis Island of Dallas,” the area is full of color and sound, an exotic oasis where Somalis, Iraqis, Nepalese and Liberians cluster in the city’s most densely populated three square miles. More than 30 languages can be heard in the streets.
Elizabeth Rayo, 24, watched Dallas police officers canvass the buildings arranged around courtyards. She said she saw an ambulance arrive at midafternoon Sunday, the same day Duncan was taken to Texas Health Presbyterian.
“I went inside. I figured somebody was sick,” she said. After learning of the Ebola outbreak, she said, she now plans to leave her home immediately. “I have kids. I can’t afford to stay here.”
News crews surrounded the Ivy Apartments, about a mile from Texas Health Presbyterian, where Duncan was being kept in isolation and in serious condition. Toni Gomez, 29, stood outside holding her year-old daughter, Demauria Griffen, saying that people in the neighborhood were afraid to go near the hospital.
“My mother called me and said, ‘Do not go to Texas Health Presbyterian. You could catch Ebola.’ And I said, ‘Mama, that’s the closest hospital I can go to. What do you want me to do?’” Gomez said.
She said her mother works for Dallas County, and she trusted her opinion, but she was “between a rock and hard spot.”
Because of the neighborhood’s large population, three schools have been built in the last decade to handle all the children. At 3 p.m. each day, on a vacant field across from the Ivy, there are hundreds of children playing sports.
By 2 p.m. Wednesday, a team of parents began arriving at Sam Tasby Middle School, just down the road from the apartment complex. One woman pushed a double baby stroller accompanied by three young teens. They walked past a line of television cameras.
Tonya Griggs, whose son Bobby Sears is in the eighth grade, said she received an automated call Wednesday morning from the school saying that one student may have been exposed to the disease. Griggs immediately showed up at the school and said she was not letting her son return to school until she got answers.
“Until they say they have it under control, he is not coming back,” she said. “It’s just crazy.”
Bobby said none of the students seemed aware that the frightening disease may have come close to their school. “Nobody is talking about it because nobody knows,” he said. “I was just curious why my mother just came to the school. It’s really scary. I am happy I am going home.”
Griggs displayed a flier from the school saying that one student may have been exposed and that extra nurses were going to be on hand.
Mike Miles, superintendent of the school district, told reporters outside Sam Tasby that parents were receiving misinformation.
“Any time you hear the word ‘Ebola’ there is going to be panic,” he said. “We are trying to get the correct information out to parents. I’ve talked to a few of them myself.”