Courage in a call center: An exclusive look at the front line of the fight against Ebola in NYC

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LONG ISLAND CITY (PIX11) -- New York City is monitoring some 300 people for the Ebola virus, the largest such project in the country. How that's done is as unique as the situation itself, and that process has not been seen by the public, until now.

New York monitors potential Ebola carriers worldwide, but the effort is centered in a large conference room at Health Department headquarters,overlooking the Long Island City MTA rail yard. There, about 30 people at any given time sit in front of computers, with headsets on, entering into a database information they gather from people they reach by phone every day for the 21 days that Ebola symptoms are known to appear.

"When you have people who can communicate with someone not only in their native language, but also in their home dialect," said Deputy Health Commissioner Dr. Jay Varma, "they're more likely to tell the truth" because they feel comfort and trust with the person calling them.

Those callers in the monitoring center are nicknamed disease detectives, and Dr. Varma is called the incident commander. That's not a nickname, by the way. As an infectious disease specialist, he is always the person called on to organize response efforts to potential outbreaks.

He's set up the city's response to hepatitis cases, swine flu and other potentially rapidly spreading illnesses. The Ebola case is unique, however, because the Health Department workers dealing with it are calling out to all potential carriers, rather the other way around, which has always been the case in past crises.

"[The specialists] are having a conversation every single day with somebody who came in from [West Africa]," Dr. Varma said in an interview with PIX11 News. "We ask them some very basic questions, including, 'How are you feeling?'. First of all, we ask them a list of symptoms and second of all, we ask them what their temperature was."

At every computer console is a Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion chart that has 100.04 degrees Fahrenheit marked in red. That is the high water mark for a possible case of Ebola. Anyone reporting that temperature or higher is ordered immediately to the hospital, and as Dr. Varma points out, obtaining such information requires constant monitoring on his end, and something just as important from the people being monitored.

"We know that there's an outbreak of Ebola," the incident commander said. "What we also know is there's not an outbreak of honesty. In this situation, though, there's a real recognition of the danger there."

"We're here," he went on, "[for people to] know how to do the right thing. Because we are constantly interacting with them, we're keeping them aware, and they know what to do if they get sick."