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Juliana Margulies confronts epidemic in “The Hot Zone”

There is one germ on Earth that strikes fear and grabs headlines like none other: Ebola.

National Geographic presents the six-part, three-night miniseries “The Hot Zone” (beginning Monday), based on Richard Preston’s 1994 nonfiction thriller about the origins of the Ebola virus and its arrival in the U.S. in 1989.

Julianna Margulies stars as Dr. Nancy Jaax, chief pathologist at the U.S. Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases, who risks everything to keep the Ebola virus contained before it causes a deadly epidemic. Margulies shares her thoughts on “The Hot Zone”:

Dodged a bullet?

“Everyone thinks that because Ebola is found in these faraway African villages that it has nothing to do with us here in the U.S.,” Margulies says. “And to see something that happened in 1989, to see that Ebola touched U.S. soil and that the CDC’s reaction to it was basically, ‘We dodged a bullet. It wasn’t (the species) Ebola Zaire.’ And the people who were working, the researchers, the pathologists, are all saying, ‘No, no, no, no, no. We didn’t dodge a bullet. We need to find a cure. There’s no cure. There’s nothing you can take. This has a 90 percent fatality rate.’ ”

Fear keeps you sharp

“She just doesn’t see herself as anything but a woman going to work,” Margulies says of Jaax. “I looked at her character as a hero, because she really emphasized what a threat this was and got the ball rolling to stop it from spreading. But to her, it was just another day at the office, really.”

For most of us, a day at the office doesn’t involve handling Marburg virus. In one scene, Jaax enters the biohazard lab even though she has a small wound on her hand. Panic sets in when she gets a tear in her hazmat suit.

“I think she got cocky,” Margulies says. “You’re a little bit overzealous, because you’re so good at what you do that the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to you. And that was a good slap in the face of, ‘Oh, right. I’m only human, too.’ And I think it’s that moment in the decontamination chamber where she’s just like, ‘What did I just do? Have I just compromised my life, and my children’s lives and my husband’s life, forever?’ ”

Tight fit

Early in the series, Jaax guides a cadet through the stages of protection leading up to the Level 4 biohazard containment lab, where some of the deadliest known pathogens are stored. Wearing a hazmat suit is a simple barrier, but it turned out to be the hardest part of the job for Margulies.

“I didn’t realize how claustrophobic I was until they zipped up the suit and I was on set,” she says. “It’s very difficult to move in them. They weigh 50 pounds. You can’t hear anything because there are fans so they’re ventilating the suits. You feel sort of like you’re on a little island where no one else is. Even though you can see everyone, you can’t hear them because you’re just hearing the whir of the fans.

“I did four days straight in that suit, and by the end, I’m embarrassed to say I actually broke down in tears, and I’ve never done that, ever. I couldn’t take it anymore.”

Fascinating and really horrible

From a gruesome opening scene in which an infected person is hemorrhaging buckets in the close quarters of a small aircraft flying over Africa to the extreme degree of caution employed inside a Level 4 biohazard lab, “The Hot Zone” will have you reconsidering that next handshake.

When I met Margulies for our interview, I proposed that we greet each other by bumping fists and elbows.

“I definitely wash my hands more, and am very aware of what I’m touching, where things might have been,” she says. “I now carry wipes in my bag. I never used to do that.”

You don’t have to be a virologist to take some simple steps in protecting yourself from common infections.

“I worked with Nancy Jaax’s real-life nephew who is an infectious disease specialist, one of the top in the field,” Margulies says. “And he told me that infectious disease specialists never touch their face. He said, ‘Now that you know that, you’re gonna watch people, and you’re gonna see how many times in five minutes they will touch their face.’

“And, he said he never gets the flu or sick — maybe once every six years — because he’s not constantly touching his face. So, now I’m always sitting on my hands. It is kind of fascinating, and really horrible.”

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