Recent returnees from West Africa monitored by Chicago health officials | WBEZ
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Recent returnees from West Africa monitored by Chicago health officials

On Wednesday afternoon, Marcus DiPaola was in shorts, a t-shirt and puffy shark slippers, bouncing around his West Loop apartment.

The freelance journalist zinged from his bed to his computer table displaying souvenirs of his recent journey from Liberia, to Morocco, to New York, then Chicago, where he lives. There are brochures from the airport about Ebola symptoms, a digital thermometer (that he uses about 40 times a day) and pills.

"This is Tylenol just in case I get dehydrated or a headache of some kind," said the journalist who works for the Chinese government news service, among others. "These are malaria pills. You gotta take these because if you don't you might get a (malarial) fever which is commonly mistaken for Ebola so you’re going to be stuck at an Ebola treatment center and actually get Ebola which would be bad.”

DiPaola returned from Liberia 10 days ago. He filled out his questionnaire at JFK airport in New York and was found to be in the zero-risk category under guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

"This was because I never had any patient contact of any kind or even contact with anybody," DiPaolo said. "No one is shaking hands, no one’s hugging. No one’s touching each other at all.”

But a day after touching down in New York, Di Paola flew to Chicago. And five days later, he got a call from the New York Department of Public Health. He explained that he was already in Chicago and he was told to expect a call from Illinois officials within 24 hours.

DiPaola never heard from the Illinois Department of Public Health. But Wednesday, three hours after he finished an interview with WBEZ, the 23-year-old journalist did get a call from the Chicago Department of Public Health.

"They wanted to know what my temperature was and they wanted to know if they could come over and give me a quick check over," he said.

New protocols from the CDC now require even zero-risk returnees to be reclassified as low-risk and monitored for at least 21 days. DiPaola supports the measures but can be frustrated by some of the fear generated by public ignorance on incubation periods and transmission routes. Some scrutiny has come from friends and the parents of his girlfriend’s roommate who believe that his current freedom could spread the virus.

"They thought that if I woke up with a fever, that somehow I would end up giving it to my girlfriend, and then she would give it to her roommate," DiPaola recalled. "But the problem with that is that even if you do wake up with a fever, you’ve still got between four and seven days before you start vomiting and having a lot of fecal matter leave you. And that’s the only way to spread it."

Despite these fear-driven concerns from the public, DiPaolo welcomes the public health nurses who arrived at his door for the first time Wednesday afternoon.

"Hey guys, come on in," he says to the ladies who seem a little startled by his ebullient manner. "Welcome to the party!"

In lieu of shaking hands, DiPaola invites them to touch shoes, "like we do it in Liberia," he says.  

One nurse explains: "Our purpose of being here today is to just look at you and make sure everything is fine with you and that you have no symptoms. And we’d like you take your temperature and we will look at it to see what it is."

DiPaolo pulls out his digital thermometer and shows the nurses a reading of 98.5 degrees.

"OK this is my previous temperature from 30 minutes ago," he says. "I'm going to warm it up here and it is 98.5 again."

The nurses scheduled future visits with DiPaola through November 10. Each time, they will monitor him for symptoms and check his temperature. He’s also told to call 311 immediately if he starts to run a fever.

Once the nurses are gone, DiPaola settles back into his quiet apartment with his girlfriend, Emily. She arrived in the middle of the screening to find three strange women in her boyfriend’s home.

"Well, that was a surprise," she says.

"I probably should have warned you," he says.

"Yeah, you should have," she responds.

In coming weeks, DiPaola's schedule should become more predictable. His employers don't want him to work for 25 days after his return. But he does have regular apppointments planned with nurses. The journalist says he thinks these visits are probably best for public health, but he's also looking forward to November 10.

Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and the co-host of  the food podcast "Chewing the Fat."  Follow her @monicaeng.

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