America's Ebola Panic, As Told by Pizza

Access to the pies is a recurring symbol used to tell the story of our evolving attitudes toward the disease.

The ability to get a pizza delivered is, apparently, an excellent barometer for measuring Americans' histrionics over Ebola.

Since the first Ebola patients arrived on U.S. soil in August, the American response to the virus has evolved with the changing circumstances—from a Dallas hospital unsuccessfully treating a Liberian patient, to a hospital in Atlanta curing Americans, to a nurse who doesn't even have Ebola being quarantined in Maine.

Each case is different. Access to pizza, though, has become the one small, symbolic anecdote that seems to help explain them all.

It all started in August, when two American aid workers contracted Ebola in West Africa and were flown back to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta for treatment. Some critics worried that bringing infected patients into the U.S. would cause an outbreak here. Cable news covered the ambulance ride like a car chase.

And in that initial panic, The New York Times later reported, "pizza places would not deliver to staff members in any part of the hospital," even wards that had no contact with Ebola patients.

Ultimately, that phase of the panic subsided. The aid workers lived, Emory proved it could handle the myriad challenges of treating Ebola patients and, presumably, pizza delivery resumed.

The public's fears ratcheted up a month later, when Thomas Eric Duncan became the first person diagnosed within the U.S. Because he was not already in isolation when he arrived, and because the hospital initially sent him home, his case raised a concern the aid workers hadn't: that he might have infected his family or neighbors.

While the aid workers' infections were confined to a hospital, Duncan's case presented the first real risk of infection in an American community. Repairmen, delivery workers, and even friends were wary of Duncan's neighborhood, even though Ebola is relatively difficult to contract.

In fact, as Bloomberg News reported, "Cecil Camper, 47, who manages a Domino's Pizza location just blocks from the Ivy Apartments, where Duncan stayed with his girlfriend, said he is allowing his six drivers to stop deliveries to the complex until further notice."

Turns out, Duncan did not infect anyone in his community. But his case brought us to the next phase of the Ebola story: concerns specifically for and about health care workers. Two nurses who cared for him became infected, and the next person diagnosed inside the U.S. was a doctor who had just returned from West Africa.

States have rushed to set up specific protocols to ensure that returning health care workers do not transmit the disease and risk new infections within the U.S. None have gone further than New Jersey, where nurse Kaci Hickox was quarantined inside a makeshift tent for days, or Maine, where Gov. Paul LePage went to court to preserve Hickox's home isolation, even though she has twice tested negative for Ebola.

Hickox's quarantine has sparked a greater public emphasis on the risks of overreaction, including two public statements this past week from President Obama. It was one thing for everyday people, who have no particular need to understand infectious diseases, to be a little overly scared of getting Ebola. Now, though, the question is whether state governments are overreacting.

And pizza, once again, has adapted to the evolving concerns. This time, it's not the pizza place that's afraid of Ebola, but the local police. Vox's Sarah Kliff reported Thursday that it took almost a full day for the local police force to let Moose Shack, a local pizza place, deliver a pizza to Hickox's house. Some 20 hours after Hickox said she'd like a pizza, Moose Shack said it was still "in contact with the police department to see whether they can deliver a pizza."

Hickox ultimately got the pizza. And a day later, a judge lifted her quarantine. He directed Hickox to be mindful of the fact that people are afraid of Ebola, but said the state couldn't justify her confinement.

"The Court is entirely aware that people are acting out of fear and that this fear is not entirely rational," the judge wrote.