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Q&A: What It’s Like to Cover Ebola

After returning from West Africa, photojournalist Neil Brandvold is isolating himself as a precaution.

Photojournalist Neil Brandvold recently shot video of patients and caregivers in Liberia and Sierra Leone, at the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak that has killed more than 4,400 people in recent months.

Now home in Washington, D.C., Brandvold is spending 21 days in self-imposed isolation—the maximum incubation period for Ebola—and seeing as few people as possible, on the off chance that he might be incubating the virus himself. Mostly, he said, he's doing it because other people are afraid to be around him. (Related: Ebola Outbreak in United States Sees Another Diagnosis)

While in West Africa, he ate his own packaged granola bars, beef jerky, and ramen so he wouldn't have to eat locally prepared foods. When it was time to head home, he left behind the clothes he had worn to the Ebola clinics. Now—and until his quarantine period ends around October 26—he is checking his temperature at least twice a day, because the first sign of Ebola is usually a fever. (Q&A: American Virus Expert in Africa's Ebola Zone)

Q: How have you adjusted to your return?

A: It's been a strange culture shock. I still feel the compulsive need to wash my hands over and over all day long. For the whole time I was over there, you don't touch anyone or anything, and that was very strange to go weeks without any physical interaction with anyone. I still feel conscious of anything I touch or do.

Q: Do you have any reason to think you might have caught the virus?

A: I took all the necessary precautions: wore gloves, rubber boots. Sprayed everything with chlorine about a million times a day.

Q: But you're still a little nervous, particularly after another videographer, Ashoka Mukpo, contracted the virus?

A: There are always flukes. If you got close when they disinfected a car or body and they sprayed up, you could get some Ebola from the spray. You can never be 100 percent safe, especially in situations like that. (Related: Photographer in Liberia's Ebola Zone)

Q: And you won't know for certain that you're safe until the 21-day incubation period ends?

A: I'm here counting my days. It's been [11] days.

Q: Are other people scared of you, even though you're unlikely to have Ebola and people with Ebola aren't contagious unless they have symptoms?

A: People are overly scared. I think it's lack of education of how it's spread. It's happening in Africa, too. The medical workers—their families have disowned them, kicked them out of the house. They've been evicted from multiple landlords. I met this group of nurses and they were all living on two beds in an Ebola clinic because no one would let them rent a place.

Q: They lived in the clinic?

A: It was really sad to see these people who are on the front line risking their lives, and they've been shunned by everyone. The ones I met, they haven't been paid in two weeks. They didn't have food. When we came in, they were basically begging for food. It's super dangerous for them. It's really hard and hot work for them in these suits that are heavy, suffocating. To be doing that kind of work without any food, without any pay, and without a place to stay at the end of the day, it's just incredible that people would sacrifice like that.

Q: Why do they stay on the job?

A: [In] the most poignant interview I might have shot the whole trip, a nurse said that it was a war and she feels like she's on the front line of this war. She's lost so many people [in her family to Ebola], she wants to do whatever she can do to win the battle.

Q: You also followed people who help to safely remove the bodies of those who have died—from Ebola or other causes.

A: In three hours, they collected 20 bodies. They said they collected over 100 in the previous two days. These aren't trained professionals. These are people who've volunteered and said they want to help out.

Q: Did you see any hopeful signs? Any sense that things might be getting better?

A: Toward the end, it seems like they had gotten a better handle on things. There weren't the huge lines of people trying to get into clinics. Either people were afraid and dying at home, or the clinics had enough beds that they were able to let people in.

Q: Did the conditions at the hospitals surprise you?

A: They're glorified tents or abandoned wards from old hospitals. You wouldn't want to get treated for a cold in there. [At a center in Monrovia, Liberia] they had 35 beds and 75 patients. Most were on mattresses on the ground in incredible humidity and heat. The sanitation levels are rough. One of the last days we were there, the clinic completely ran out of chlorine, which is the front-line defense for everyone. There's no way to interact [safely] with patients if you can't wash all your gear multiple times with chlorine.

Q: Most people would do whatever they could to avoid West Africa, but you willingly headed there. Why?

A: For me, it's just always been an interest in what's happening and storytelling. I covered the Arab Spring and the coup in Honduras. I think it's important to tell people's stories and let [other] people be aware of what's happening. To be able to go over and tell that, it seems like the most important thing I could be doing with my life right now.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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