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How U.S. Hospitals Keep Deadly Germs Like Ebola Virus Contained

A member of Doctors Without Borders dons protective gear in Conakry, Guinea. U.S. health care workers will use similar protective garb.
Cellou Binani
AFP/Getty Images
A member of Doctors Without Borders dons protective gear in Conakry, Guinea. U.S. health care workers will use similar protective garb.

With plans underway to bring one or two Americans stricken with Ebola to the United States, people are wondering how that will happen without unleashing the deadly virus.

On Friday afternoon, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted a guide explaining how hospitals should manage Ebola patients. Hospital workers entering a patient's room should wear:

  • Gloves
  • Gown (fluid resistant or impermeable)
  • Eye protection (goggles or face shield)
  • Face mask
  • If there is a large amount of blood or other body fluids, personnel may also be told to wear double sets of gloves, shoe covers or leg covers, the CDC added.

    Emory University Hospital, which is slated to care for the patients, has a specially designed wing separate from the rest of the hospital that was created to treat people infected by bioterrorism attacks or pandemics.

    ButDr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, says almost any American hospital is equipped to take care of an Ebola patient without endangering staff or the public.

    Infectious patients are put in an isolation room, and health workers have to put on protective gear before entering the room. They remove the gear when leaving. It is put in red infectious disease waste bags, which are burned.

    Even though Ebola isn't spread through the air, the CDC says that patients probably will be put in negative-pressure rooms that isolate air so it can't circulate through the building. Those are typically used with patients with active tuberculosis, which is airborne.

    The system for keeping bad germs under control is simple, Schaffner says. "The trick will be to do it rigorously at all times."

    During the SARS outbreakin 2003, hospitals learned the hard way that workers would shortcut the precautions just because they were busy, "or because familiarity breeds if not contempt then casualness," Schaffner says.

    In Canada, hospital workers treating SARS patients became infected. It wasn't until the hospitals stationed monitors outside patients' rooms to make sure that everyone strictly followed infection control procedures that the virus's spread in the hospitals was halted.

    "Just earlier this year a we had a few patients that were suspect MERScases," Schaffner told Shots. "We put monitors outside of the rooms right away because we remembered the Canadian experience. Fortunately, none of the patients had MERS."

    Hospitals follow state and federal guidelines for infection control, and routinely drill on procedures. "I think any institution of any size can take care of such a patient, to the benefit of the patient and for the protection of the staff," Schaffner says. "Having an active and effective infection control team with appropriate biopreparedness plans is elementary; it's fundamental."

    The fact that Ebola isn't an airborne virus makes it difficult to spread, according to Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. "There is no risk of this spreading in the United States. We would expect no health care workers to be infected."

    Osterholm said he's been getting calls from editors and reporters in the United States asking why the sick patients are being brought here. "Their reaction to the virus on the fear and panic side is no different than what you see in Africa," Osterholm says.

    "We're being critical of the West African population for not understanding," Osterholm says. "I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, the U.S. senior media doesn't get it.' "

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