Back from Liberia, Aspen resident Frank Peters will ‘lay low’
November 3, 2014
You won't find Aspen resident Frank Peters at a restaurant for the next few weeks, or most anywhere in public, for that matter.
Peters, 66, returned to Aspen on Wednesday from Liberia, where he helped man a logistics team for the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, which is stationed there to help curb the Ebola virus and the people it has afflicted.
"I've been at home since I got back, and I'm going to stick pretty close to home, but not because I'm afraid of anything," Peters said in a telephone interview Friday.
Peters, who sat on the Aspen City Council from 1989 to 1993, said he hasn't shown any symptoms of Ebola, a statement supported by Liz Stark, Pitkin County's public health director. Stark has spoken to Peters, who also met in person Thursday night with Dr. Kimberly Levin, the county's medical officer.
"I know the medical side of Ebola," said Peters, who lives with his wife, Marjory. "I know that I'm not contagious, but that's not to say that other people won't be uncomfortable with me. And the reason I'm doing this interview is that people have a right to know that I'm back and I'm going to stay close to home."
"Nobody is contagious unless they have symptoms," Stark said.
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Peters is one of 52 Americans with the Doctors Without Borders staff who have worked in the three West African countries — Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — accounting for 70 percent of Ebola cases since the outbreak in March, said Tim Shenk, the press officer for Doctors Without Borders, also commonly referred to as MSF, which stands for Medecins Sans Frontieres.
Peters checks his temperature each morning and night. County health officials will speak to him daily about his condition until the 21-day incubation period passes from his last day in Liberia, which was Oct. 25. His work began in Monrovia on Sept. 2, he said.
During his time stationed in Liberia, Peters said, there were numerous protocols in place. No one could have contact with one another, and the closest one person could get to another was 1 meter, which is about 3 feet. Doctors Without Borders workers washed their hands and sprayed their feet with chlorine solutions, as well. The organization has a zero-tolerance policy for those who don't comply with the rules.
Peters shrugged off the notion that he's administering a self-imposed quarantine.
"I'm just using ordinary, good judgment to not contribute to the pool of fear that's out there," he said.
Stark said that Pitkin County became aware of Peters this week. The county works closely with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which follows guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All of the departments have been notified that Peters is back in Aspen.
"He has no activity restrictions," Stark said. "(Peters) is considered low-risk exposure, and we have all of the protocols in place. … I think (Peters) here has a great story to share, and people should be proud and respectful of the work he's done."
The quarantine debate
Peters' return to Aspen comes at a time when the debate intensifies over whether quarantines should be mandated for those returning to the U.S. from Ebola-stricken countries. The national spotlight has been on nurse Kaci Hickox, who was detained in New Jersey for several days before Gov. Chris Christie allowed her to return home to Maine. Like Peters, Hickox worked for Doctors Without Borders, and she has been outspoken that her civil rights were violated because she was placed under quarantine in New Jersey. The state of Maine has called her quarantine voluntary, yet Hickox has left her home, including for a Thursday bicycle ride with her husband. The couple were followed by a Maine state trooper.
Doctors Without Borders has stood behind Hickox, saying that mandatory quarantine measures undermine the organization's effort to "curb the epidemic at its source," its website says.
Shenk said Doctors Without Borders stays in touch with those who return to the U.S., such as Peters. The case of Hickox "is the only quarantine order that I've seen," he said.
All told, the number of Ebola cases this year in Liberia, through Wednesday, is 6,525, said Shenk, citing figures from the World Health Organization. Of those, there have been 2,413 reported deaths, he said.
Peters' time in Liberia
Peters spoke fondly about the Liberians he worked with as well as those with Doctors Without Borders, an organization he has served since 2007.
Peters was in Sierra Leone in December and January, where there were no known cases of Ebola at the time.
When he recently learned that Doctors Without Borders needed help in Liberia, he answered the call.
"I'm happily married with a nice life in Aspen," he said, noting that he considers his work in Africa important.
On Aug. 27, Peters was in Brussels for a briefing that "was most entirely medical." While much of his experience with Doctors Without Borders has been in construction, Peters' recent time in Liberia was spent handling transportation logistics by managing fleets of vehicles for medical missions.
"The people in Monrovia, Liberia, where I was working, were doing their very best to keep on," he said. "There were times when you were driving around and it looked like life was going on as usual — people in markets selling things along the roads. It seemed like life was going on, yet everybody knew that life wasn't going on. The word was out. The warning billboards were up around the city. Everybody knew about Ebola, that this was a dangerous environment."
Even so, Peters said that the safety protocols enforced by Doctors Without Borders made him feel confident and safe in his mission.
"If you work for MSF, you can be sure that the health protocols and security are stringent and elaborate and that they're followed," he said.
Peters declined to comment on the dimensions of the Ebola epidemic. He said he can only speak anecdotally.
"I can't speak to what somebody else perceives," he said.
But until the 21-day period is over, Peters said he feels no need to contribute to the panic that has ensued as a result of Ebola.
"I feel there's enough fear going around that I don't want to add to it," he said. "I want to subtract from it."
So for the time being, Peters will "lay low," he said.