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A micrograph of the Ebola virus.

Going Viral

The great (make-believe) Ebola outbreak.

Last October, a man named Harry Randall Withers was pulled over and taken to the Cobb County Detention Center in Marietta, Ga. after swerving between lanes. It was about 3 a.m. According to his indictment, a paramedic interviewed Withers and noticed that in addition to appearing drunk, he seemed to have a cough.

Withers explained that he’d done some traveling in West Africa the previous month.

Maybe, he said, he’d contracted Ebola.

The paramedic initiated what was officially called the Ebola Virus Protocol. The jail was put on lockdown. Withers was placed in isolation, then transported to a local hospital. The area where he’d been held was sanitized twice.

Withers later told an investigator that he had a passport with stamps from Kenya. He’d flown on Saudi Air and stayed four days, then flown back with a one-day layover in Liberia. He also said he’d spent the night in a Nigerian airport on his way home, though he couldn’t remember the name of the city.

An Ebola test conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in nearby Atlanta came back negative. An investigator found cell phone records showing Withers had not left the country. Also, he didn’t have a passport.

Withers later pleaded guilty to “making false statements,” paid the sheriff’s office $10,000, and took a suspended sentence that required him to complete a six-month drug rehabilitation program. Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, commissioner of the state’s Department of Public Health, held a press conference to reassure the public that “absolutely all his lab work is negative and normal.”

“We will not tolerate anyone manipulating the system like this and preying on our worst fears,” prosecutor John Melvin said in a statement. “When you put the county and law enforcement through such a useless exercise as this, we will find out the truth.”

Withers was not the only person to try using a false claim of Ebola as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Late last year, as public panic over Ebola reached its zenith, law enforcement officers encountered similar gambits in Georgia, Virginia, Florida, Nevada, and Texas.

In Chesapeake, Va., a woman trying to post bond after she was arrested for cocaine possession informed local officials she had recently returned from Liberia and was “very, very sick.” The woman “told me she thought by telling police she had Ebola they would let her out of jail," the bail bondsman involved said to a local TV station. "I told her 'No, you're probably going to stay there longer now.'" Later that day, Sheriff’s deputies spoke with the woman again. She confessed to lying about having traveled to Liberia, and she was charged with obstruction of justice.

Sheriff’s Lt. Col. David Hackworth said the incident slowed down the jail’s regular intake process, much as when an inmate is diagnosed with tuberculosis or another infectious disease. “We’re dealing with trying to isolate other inmates,” he said. “There are safety concerns.”

In Broward County, Fla., first responders in hazmat suits arrived at the county jail. A man had been arrested the night before at a restaurant after he licked his hand and placed it on a restaurant employee. A police report later indicated that the man had told the employee, “I have Ebola.” Once a judge discovered this claim, he ordered a four-hour lockdown of the county’s court and jail. The man later denied having said he had Ebola. He didn’t face further charges.

Officials in both Georgia and Virginia said that there were some monetary costs for their departments associated with these episodes, though the actual figure had not been tallied. A sheriff in Corpus Christi, Texas estimated that a similar incident had cost “in the five digits.” Mostly, they all agreed, it was a hassle.

The judge in Florida who triggered the jail shutdown had no regrets. “I'd hate to not do anything,” he told the Sun-Sentinel, “and be wrong."