Story updated Thursday October 16, at 11:10 p.m.
Southwestern College officials announced this afternoon that the student who originally expressed fear that she and her sister may have been in contact with an airline passenger with Ebola has recanted her story, according to Police Chief Michael Cash. An estimated 50-75 students from several classes in a quad near the student’s class were quarantined for more than four hours before being released around 1 p.m. Cash said the student recanted her story after extensive questioning by law enforcement.
Students and staff first became aware of the Ebola scare around 9 a.m. when campus police began to surround the quad around the 400, 440, 450, 460 and 470 buildings with yellow caution tape. Students inside the quad were told to stay inside the area, though some students said campus police urged them to leave quickly before they were quarantined with the others. Classes in the affected area were cancelled for four hours until 1 p.m. Afternoon classes were to go on as scheduled, according to a global email from Vice President of Academic Affairs Kathy Tyner. It contradicted earlier statements by campus administrators and police that classes in the area were cancelled for the day.
No other classes were affected, though television news reports urged people to stay away from Southwestern College. Students and staff remained calm throughout the incident and followed campus police directions.
SWC has provided conflicting reports on the situation.
Public Information Officer Lillian Leopold said during a televised press conference at 11 a.m. that no students or staff were held under quarantine. Cash later confirmed that students were held under the quarantine, but were released after four hours.
Some campus police officers told faculty and students that the female student had vomited twice, once inside the classroom and once in the quad. One even described the vomit as “some crazy green.” Students and faculty in the classroom with the student said she never vomited.
A 10:30 a.m. email from Tyner said San Diego County health officials were on their way to the college.
“The Campus Police have cordoned off the 470 area,” the email read. “The County Department of Health has been called and is in transit to assess the situation.”
Around 12:10 p.m., the college posted the following on its Facebook.
“NO EBOLA ON SOUTHWESTERN COLLEGE CAMPUS
A student and her family had been traveling to the Midwest last week.
Upon their return, the sister exhibited flu-like symptoms and has been hospitalized.
The student is NOT exhibiting ANY flu like symptoms.
The student contacted the instructor to inform the instructor why the student had not been in class.
In an abundance of caution by some staff members, the 470 building was cordoned off.
Our campus nurse has thoroughly examined the student and there IS NO EXPECTATION OF EBOLA.
An earlier communication saying that the County Department of Health was on their way was incorrect.”
At around 1 p.m. college officials said they were in contact with the CDH. County Department of Health officials indicate, however, that they never planned to dispatch a team to Southwestern College because it receives hundreds of false Ebola reports every week.
Cash said that much of the information previously released by the college was inaccurate. When the student recanted, Cash said, she admitted that she had not flown on the same jetliner as a sick African man. She also told police her sister was not hospitalized. Cash said law enforcement officers contacted the sister and she told them she was home with a cold.
Cash said the student could face college and legal sanctions for fabricating a story that could have caused panic. He declined to speculate whether the student would be charged. Cash asked The Sun not to reveal the student’s name so as not to endanger her. The Editorial Board of The Sun agreed to the request for the time being.
Virtually every San Diego County print and broadcast news organization converged on the campus. Soon the story was international news.
Student journalists from The Sun were contacted by the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press and Arizona Republic as well as San Diego County and Baja California news media outlets. A news helicopter circled the campus for nearly an hour. A Mexico City newspaper reported the story.
SWC History Professor Laura Ryan, who arrived to teach a 9 a.m. class in room 471, was told by campus police she could not go into the room.
“This student told her teacher that she had a fever and that she was exposed to the Ebola virus because they were on that same plane,” she said.
Cash said that the teacher who informed college officials made the right decision.
Ryan said the quarantined students had shown up early to get their favorite seats. One of her quarantined students, Vincent Avila-Walker, said that campus police had been vague with the students about the situation and that he needed to know more information.
“I started asking them, the police officers, ‘Is there a real threat? Because our classroom is right here. If there is a real threat happening, I need to know so I can protect myself.’”
Avila-Walker said a police officer told him it would be in his best interest to leave.
“He basically said, ‘If I was you, I would leave.’”
Avila-Walker went back to give classmates this information, but after he entered Room 471, the police officer came over to say that they would have to remain to stay under quarantine.
“(The officer) said it was possibly an Ebola strain,” he said.
Misca Lopez, who was is in the same class as Avila-Walker and was with him at the time, confirms that they were asked by campus police to stay in the room and that the officer did verbalize there was the possibility of an Ebola contamination.
“He (the police officer) came in and said we need to get out,” she said. “But then he eventually changed it to that we need to stay in, saying that we’re quarantined and that they believe someone might have had Ebola.”
Lopez said that when she showed up to school she was told she could go into the classroom as long as she went around the caution tape. She said there were more than 50 people held under quarantine. She said she does not believe the episode was handled well.
“They should have never said for me to go and walk around (the police tape) into my class when I told them my class was right there by the yellow tape,” she said.
Lopez said that the police officers did not give those quarantined any information on when they could leave.
“They were saying ‘Just stay here, we don’t know when you’ll be released,’” she said.
Lopez added that they were informed that the CDH had been called and would be on their way to examine them. They were told that they would be released once the CDH arrived and assessed the situation. SWC’s statement indicated that the CDH had not been called at the time that the students were told this.
“This entire time we were waiting for them to get here to check us out,” she said.
Lopez, along with students Katrina Simmons and Citlali Marshburn, said they felt that the rush of mainstream media was abrasive and that the reporters did not proceed safely. Simmons said at least five television reporters crossed over the police tape into the quarantined zone and that police officers did not stop them or quarantine them.
“When the media did come, they bombarded us,” Simmons said. “They were even trying to get into the quarantined zone.”
Lopez said that it was easier to cope with the situation because members of the group knew each other from Ryan’s class, where they had become close friends.
“If I was in another class, I don’t think I would’ve handled it the same way,” Lopez said.
“We kept comforting each other throughout the whole thing,” Simmons said.
All of the students agreed that the situation was not handled effectively.
“Students kept coming,” Lopez said. “Teachers kept coming, trying to get in to the quarantined zone. They didn’t even realize it was being quarantined because they didn’t get the information out. There were people constantly trying to come in which made it even worse.”
Lopez, Simmons, Avila-Walker and Marshburn all said that the incident caused them emotional trauma.
Quarantined students were held in the courtyard between the 400 buildings for more than four hours. They were brought food and water by college officials and had access to restrooms during their quarantine. The woman who said she may have been exposed to Ebola was held in a separate office.
SWC Governing Board Member Humberto Peraza said he was relieved to learn that there was no Ebola risk at the college, but concerned that so much anxiety was loosed in the community.
“I think there are certainly a lot of things that we can learn from this incident,” he said. “Not that this type of issue comes up every day, like (how) can anybody be possibly prepared to handle a situation like this. There are certainly a lot of things we could have done better, but given the circumstances, the administration certainly tried its best to handle it.”