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Ebola weighs on Rhode Island’s Liberians

Worries at home, resolve to aid relatives in Africa

Lynda Williams and Joshua Cooper listened to Rhode Island’s health director talk about Ebola at Providence’s Christ Center of Praise.
Lynda Williams and Joshua Cooper listened to Rhode Island’s health director talk about Ebola at Providence’s Christ Center of Praise.(Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe)

PROVIDENCE — The text message from an old friend presented a painful dilemma to the Rev. Claudius Cooper.

The friend, whom he knew from their Bible college days in Liberia, had arrived in America on Sept. 30 and was staying with relatives in Rhode Island. Why haven’t you visited me? he asked Cooper in a text.

“I . . . text [back] and say, ‘Hey, I love you, don’t get angry with me, you know? Give me the 21 days. You want me to live, you know?’ ” Cooper said.

Twenty-one days — that’s how long it can take for symptoms of Ebola to manifest. Although people are not contagious unless ill, Cooper does not want to take any chances.

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In Rhode Island’s vibrant Liberian community, one of the nation’s largest, the Ebola epidemic across the ocean has hit close to home, spurring charity, grief, and — sometimes — fear, even among friends.

Cooper’s church helped collect disinfectant to ship to Liberia. On Sunday, the church hosted the state health director, Dr. Michael Fine, for a question-and-answer session on Ebola.

Fine welcomed the invitation; he had been worrying about Ebola for months. Liberians in Rhode Island travel back and forth from their homeland often and receive visiting relatives. An Ebola case could very well show up in a local hospital — or, worse, in a local household afraid to acknowledge the illness and seek care.

The Rhode Island Health Department has worked with hospitals, doctor’s offices, and other health facilities to ensure protocols are in place to recognize and respond to an Ebola case.

But Fine, who has traveled to Liberia, took the additional step of reaching out to the Liberian community, seeking to deploy Rhode Islanders to call relatives in Africa — where some have denied that Ebola is real — and also to urge anyone who feels ill after traveling from West Africa to go to the hospital. Liberian community leaders meet weekly at the Health Department, which has given them informational fliers.

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“We have an opportunity to save a million or maybe 2 million lives,” Fine told the congregation at the Christ Center of Praise. “The Ebola in Liberia isn’t a problem of a virus. The Ebola in Liberia is a problem of poverty and distrust.”

He urged people to each call five relatives in Liberia to spread accurate information about Ebola and to urge those family members to each call five more.

Rhode Island has the seventh-largest Liberian community in the country, according to a five-year US census estimate from 2008 to 2012. The estimate put the population of Liberian-born Rhode Islanders at nearly 3,000. But that does not include their American-born children, and the population’s size is often said to be as great as 15,000.

Danlette F. Norris has lost six relatives to Ebola. “It’s definitely had a great impact on the Liberian community in Rhode Island,” said Norris, who emigrated from Liberia in the 1990s.

“Every one of us has family back home: siblings, mothers, grandmothers, aunts. So it’s personal,” said Patience Landford, a member of Ebola Be Gone, a group of young Africans in Rhode Island who seek to help the effort in West Africa.

Liberians have lived in Rhode Island at least since the 1970s. During the country’s civil war in the 1990s, the population grew, as hundreds of refugees received asylum in the United States.

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They chose Rhode Island because they had relatives there and because its small size reminded them of home. “People get to know each other easily,” said the Rev. Matthew Kai, pastor of the Westside Tabernacle Baptist Church in Providence. “Almost everybody knows everybody.”

Many Liberians went to work in human services, especially health care, getting training and jobs as nurses, social workers, and certified nursing assistants.

“We hug, we shake hands,” Kai said. “With the Ebola situation, people are getting very cautious about that.” A few, he said, have even declined to pick up relatives returning from Liberia at the airport.

At Rhode Island Hospital, the state’s largest, it is not unusual to see tropical illnesses, because in addition to Liberians, the state is home to other Africans and Southeast Asians.

But Ebola is scarier, and preparing for it has taken thousands of hours, said Dr. John B. Murphy, an executive vice president of the hospital’s parent company, Lifespan. The hospital even sent a decoy patient to test the system — and the system worked.

“We feel very strongly that there is going to be a case that shows up here eventually, and we have to be prepared for that,” Murphy said.

Anyone arriving at the emergency room with certain symptoms within 21 days of travel outside the country is treated as if they have Ebola until proved otherwise. They are whisked to one of the hospital’s 91 isolation rooms and tended by staff wearing protective garb.

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The hospital has assembled special carts, each stocked with personal protective equipment for Ebola: plastic face shields, specialized masks, impervious gowns, gloves with long sleeves, and booties.

After patients are isolated, the staff asks more questions about where they traveled and whom they came in contact with, and tests are run. Lab specimens are handled by garbed technicians working under a hood.

So far, about eight people have been placed in isolation and a handful said they had traveled to Ebola-stricken areas. The hospital has been able to rule out Ebola without sending a sample to federal labs.

For young Liberians in Rhode Island, the Ebola outbreak has been a call to action. Ebola Be Gone originated in a Facebook discussion among people distressed about the epidemic.

In a Providence warehouse, Kormasa Amos, 32, was among a half-dozen people from Ebola Be Gone who were loading bottles of bleach and disinfecting wipes into barrels Sunday. The supplies were collected in churches and workplaces and at events sponsored by the group.

When they have enough to fill a shipping container, it will be taken to Liberia; the cost of the trip is covered by a shipping company. It will be the last of three shipments. After consulting with federal officials, the group decided that sending money would be more efficient.

Amos was born in the United States to Liberian parents and has never been to the African nation. But her connection to Liberia runs deep, and she hopes to travel there after Ebola — to help rebuild.

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Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com.