State prepared for local Ebola patients

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Ebola virus (via wikimediacommons)

What if someone were to walk into any Bossier-Sheveport hospital and complain of fever, pain, stomach issues, and unexplained bleeding — the symptoms of Ebola?

Contrary to popular image, a group of men in hazmat suits wouldn’t rush the patient off to an isolated hospital room flanked by plastic tents and then start the process of decontaminating everyone that patient had come into contact with.

However, Dr. Frank Welch, medical director for community preparedness for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, said the state has a detailed system and DHH has been working on Ebola preparedness with the state’s entire healthcare infrastructure for the past six weeks.

“We have done an extraordinary job with our healthcare providers to make sure they ask those vital initial questions and I believe the state of Louisiana will be able to avoid making that mistake they made in Texas and respond quickly and appropriately,” Welch said.

The issue of an Ebola epidemic entered the public consciousness when three Dallas residents were infected with, and one dying of, the virus. Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man, was visiting the country when he showed signs of illness and died from the disease. Two nurses who cared for him have also contracted the deadly virus.

Welch explained that if a sick person were to walk into any area hospital with symptoms of Ebola, or or hemorrhagic fever, that person would be asked if he or she had traveled to western Africa or come into contact with someone who has Ebola. And if that person gives any indication of a “yes,” he or she is immediately put into a private room, the person who put the patient there will have to wash his or her hands, call the epidemiology hotline, and that patient’s medical needs will be treated to by someone in protective gear.

Welch said that process has occurred roughly a dozen times in the three weeks since news broke that a confirmed Ebola patient was in America.

“We’ve run up against a lot of speculation and that’s partly because it’s new, different,” said Welch. “We need to refocus on the group of healthcare workers caring for an Ebola patient. Those are the one at risk and the ones we want to focus on.”

He said the DHH and its healthcare providers are working on educating the public on the risks of infection and prevent speculation about the rare and deadly disease.

“We know how to stop this disease and we know who has it. It’s an easy disease to identify and contain,” Welch explained. “Even if a person has Ebola and is walking and talking (in a populated area), he or she can’t make someone else sick right away. It’s when it begins to overwhelm that sick person that the disease gets contagious.”

He noted that Thomas Duncan was already sick with Ebola and spent time with family in Dallas and went to two medical institutions before he was confirmed to have Ebola; it was two nurses in protective gear who got sick, while his family he was in close quarters with hasn’t come down with the disease.

He explained the mass media image of healthcare workers in “moon suits” has given the wrong idea. But went on to note that as a patient becomes more ill from the disease, more stringent steps are needed because the disease becomes more contagious.

“A person who has symptoms with a travel history to an area where Ebola was prevalent would alert our response system and then that patient would get intensive treatment from experts and an intensive investigation would take place to determine how many people they have come into contact with all the way back to the source (of infection),” said Welch.

Willis-Knighton CEO Jim Elrod told the North Shreveport Business Association several weeks ago the he had proposed a central location to handle any highly infectious and dangerous diseases, such as Ebola, for Shreveport-Bossier.

“This is not a minor thing…This is serious. It’s in the works right now,” said Elrod.

He mentioned that the Christus Schumpert St. Mary’s campus would be the ideal location for such a hospital. Currently, that facility is planned to house inpatient rehab, cancer therapy, radiology, PET imaging, nutritional services until November 2015.

He said the “sensible” option is to have one location used by every local health care facility with trained staff and security.

“You’ll need security because you want some people getting out and some people staying in,” said Elrod.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising to have a dedicated hospital in every state that would treat Ebola infections.

Currently, only four U.S. hospitals have specialized biocontainment units of the order needed to treat diseases such as Ebola. Those are Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, Montana.