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'Sickness' in building ties up city

Might have been misunderstanding

Might have been misunderstanding

October 12, 2006|by ERIN CUNNINGHAM

HAGERSTOWN - What appeared to be the makings of a dangerous outbreak in downtown Hagerstown ended with two people taken to the hospital with an unknown illness, and officials unable to say why the situation escalated so quickly.

Thirteen African refugees and three other residents were evacuated from 25 1/2 W. Franklin St. wearing green masks and latex gloves Wednesday afternoon. Officials said they were rumored to be suffering from an unknown illness, but that ultimately they believed it was a false alarm.

The confusion might have been caused by a language barrier - a problem that was solved when an interpreter arrived on the scene.

The residents were evaluated in two large yellow decontamination tents by Washington County Health Department officials. Fire Department Chief Gary Hawbaker said doctors found nothing wrong with the residents.

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Through the interpreter, the refugees said they were not sick, Hawbaker said.

After they were evaluated, two were taken to the hospital, and the others returned to the apartment building.

Hospital officials were unable to provide the patients' conditions late Wednesday.

The call

Hawbaker said officials initially were called to the building, which has four apartments, for a report of several people sick with an unknown illness. They were vomiting and were nauseous, he said.

Three Hagerstown Police Department officers who responded were considered "contaminated," Hawbaker said. They were evaluated at the scene by health professionals.

The apartment building, near the U.S. Post Office, was quickly quarantined, and residents inside were given masks.

Emergency personnel wearing protective suits checked the building for chemicals, such as carbon monoxide, Hawbaker said. None were found.

Craig Harshman, who manages the apartment building, said a language barrier between the residents in the building and police was to blame for escalating the situation.

He said African refugees living on West Washington Street were concerned about one of the residents living in the building at 25 1/2 W. Franklin St. That refugee contacted police and said the woman was sick.

The woman, Harshman said, was about two months pregnant and suffering from morning sickness.

When police arrived at the building, they saw the woman vomiting, and were told that people in the building all had been sick recently, most with what were called flu-like symptoms, he said.

Other emergency personnel were called to the building, and a quarantine was ordered due to what was believed to be an outbreak of an unknown illness.

The sickness

The group of refugees included mostly women and several young children. One of them had to be taken from the upstairs apartments in a type of chair carried by emergency personnel.

The refugees were part of a group brought to Hagerstown by the Virginia Council of Churches, Harshman said. He said there are at least 250 refugees living in the area.

He said at least one of the refugees at 25 1/2 W. Franklin St., had come in contact with sick children at a Salem Avenue home. He said that person might have been baby-sitting the children, who also were said to have suffered from vomiting and nausea.

Hawbaker said that no signs of illness were found during an evaluation by Washington County Health Department officials.

He said the refugees said through the interpreter that they were not sick, but offered no explanation for why they were believed to have been sick initially.

After a second evaluation by health officials, two of the refugees were taken to Washington County Hospital. Officials said they had "flu-like" symptoms.

Hawbaker said it would be the residents' decision whether or not to go to the hospital.

Officials declined to say what they believed caused the situation to escalate. They also would not comment on what specific illness they thought those taken in the ambulance suffered from.

The hospital

Hawbaker originally said all of the refugees were going to be taken to Washington County Hospital and put into sealed rooms. But after the health evaluations, that was not necessary.

Hospital spokeswoman Maureen Theriault said hospital officials were told they would need to start a decontamination procedure for the refugees. She said that about 8 p.m., officials were told to stand down from that procedure.

"They came in as emergency room patients," she said. "We were told there were no special concerns."

Late Wednesday, Theriault said she did not have information about the patients, including their conditions and why they were taken to the hospital.

Washington County Health Department Spokesman Rod MacRae said health department officials were at the scene, but that he had no more information.

MacRae said he wasn't at the site and that he hadn't heard back from health officials who were there.

He said Hawbaker was in charge of releasing information about the incident.

Theriault said the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene was controlling the scene. She also said Hawbaker was the local contact for information.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency representative and a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention representative both said they did not have any information about a quarantine situation in Hagerstown, but both said they would look into it.

Staff writer Tara Reilly contributed to this story.

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