Confusion over a pregnant Burundian refugee's nausea and dizziness set off fears of a biological or chemical hazard as rescue workers in full protective suits sealed off a downtown Hagerstown street and quarantined the woman and her relatives, who spoke little or no English.
But it was a false alarm. The woman was only suffering from minor sickness due to her pregnancy, the mayor said.
Once a translator arrived on the scene, authorities realized they were not dealing with a possible environmental crisis, but with a woman undergoing a difficult pregnancy.
"We erred on the side of caution," Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey said Wednesday night. "In this day and age, we'd rather be careful."
Bruchey said the incident began Wednesday afternoon when a downtown apartment resident approached a passing police officer. The man and 16 of his neighbors are refugees from Burundi, and spoke their native dialect and French, but little English, said Richard Cline, director of the refugee resettlement program of the Virginia Council of Churches.
The officer came to an apartment with the man and found a woman and a 13-year-old girl violently ill from flu-like symptoms, Bruchey said. Because the residents were unable to tell the officer why they were sick, the officer summoned help.
"We called in some medical units, and the health department was notified. Precautions were taken," Bruchey said.
Firefighters, fearing an environmental contaminant, donned hazmat gear and assisted the 17 residents from the building, which also houses business offices.
Two people were sent to Washington County Hospital as a precaution, the health care facility said. The other 15 residents did not display any flu-like symptoms and were sent home, Bruchey said.
The incident shut down one block for 2-1/2 hours.
Cline said local authorities responded appropriately, given the language barrier, but the misunderstanding points out the need for increased communication between service providers in the area.
The Virginia Council of Churches places refugees from all over the world in Virginia and Maryland. The Burundians were fleeing civil war and ethnic strife in their home country.