Q & A: Red Cross Worker Fights Ebola in Liberia

Tracy Reines deployed to Liberia in early November, as part of the global Red Cross network’s response to the Ebola outbreak. Tracy took a moment to shed some light on her experience in the country.

Q. How is Ebola different from other disasters you have worked on?

Natural disasters usually occur very quickly. You can see the damage—it’s there and it’s done. Ebola is like a rolling, ongoing disaster in terms of who is affected, where, and how badly. In Liberia the outbreak was considered under control this summer, then it resurged with hundreds of new cases per week. For the past couple of weeks we have been steadier and with not as many new cases. This is a good thing, but it is very much still a public health emergency. Needing to keep extremely flexible plans is a real challenge.

Q. What is your role there?

I am managing the global Red Cross network’s response team in Liberia. We are supporting the Liberian Red Cross and their incredible staff and volunteers who are educating communities, providing psychological support, and performing safe and dignified burials. We have public health and medical experts, outreach for families and survivors, and of course operational support such as logistics, telecommunications, etc.

Q. What is one thing you want people to know about Ebola?

We are in this together. I think people would be amazed at the incredible response of families and communities here in Liberia. There is such care for people who are sick, yet it is very difficult because that same care and close contact can lead to caregivers’ infection. Can you imagine? So, our job is to help alleviate the barriers to getting treatment to curtail spread of the virus -- and doing that in a way that is compassionate, empathetic and dignified. Health epidemics are scary and unnerving, but Ebola can absolutely be managed and controlled with relatively basic health care interventions and behavior changes. But just because something is simple, doesn’t mean it is easy.

Q. What is one thing you want people to know about the Red Cross response?

I keep asking if Liberian Red Cross has trouble finding people willing to work in these communities – they are risking exposure, stigma, and do emotionally draining work. But people keep volunteering. It is humbling and inspiring to work with this group of people who are literally on the front lines of this battle.

Q. What kind of precautions do you have to take working in West Africa?

I smell like chlorine and hand sanitizer all the time. Buckets with a chlorine solution for hand washing are ubiquitous and mandatory, as is getting your temperature taken outside of many public buildings and between county lines. No physical contact with anyone, no handshaking, no hugging. In areas where Ebola is probable or confirmed, there is a distance of about two feet we keep from people. In those towns, we don’t touch anything at all and our boots get sprayed with a heavy chlorine solution before getting back in the car. Any place we stay is disinfected with a chlorine solution before and after. Other than that, it’s totally normal.

Q. Were you worried about going? Are you worried about coming home?

To be honest I was a bit worried. I had been following the Ebola relief efforts very closely and am part of the team managing American Red Cross contributions to West Africa. But when it was decided that I would actually go, I felt a bit nervous. Before going, I went through a training on protection standards and the epidemiology of the virus itself, plus a very thorough operational and medical briefing. I knew the precautions to take, I knew the facts about how it is spread, and I knew that I could manage the inherent risk in going. I also know that tragically, the overwhelming majority of transmissions are from people providing direct medical or burial care, which is not what I am involved with. When I come home, I will monitor my temperature and check in with my healthcare facility.