When patients walk into the Biloxi Regional Medical Center burning with fever or displaying nausea symptoms these days, emergency room staffers face a potentially crucial moment.
Like at other hospitals across Mississippi, they’re on the lookout for people who recently traveled from West Africa _ or have been in close contact with someone who did_ and might be carrying the deadly Ebola virus that’s raging through Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
After a hospital in Texas initially sent an Ebola victim home, risking the spread of the infection to at least 50 others whom he contacted, federal and state health officials are scrambling to ensure that anxious medical staffers at hospitals nationwide are prepared to identify and isolate those with highly suspicious symptoms to protect the country and themselves.
“The key issue is to identify them as quickly as possible,” Mississippi’s state epidemiologist, Dr. Thomas Dobbs III, said in a telephone interview. “Even before they come into the emergency room would be ideal. And then to isolate them immediately to limit potential transmission. Individuals exposed to Ebola patients before isolation are going to be considered contacts and will need to be monitored.”
Biloxi hospital officials declined on short notice Friday to estimate how often they’re confronted with walk-in patients presenting flu-like symptoms resembling the early stages of Ebola. Should they identify such a patient, those attending the new arrivals have been advised to immediately don protective gear to avoid coming in contact with the suspicious patient’s body fluids.
Mississippi hospitals don’t have the ability to confirm presence of the disease in blood tests, Dobbs said. As a result, they won’t learn for a day or two _ the time it takes for a courier to deliver blood samples to a laboratory at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta _ whether the stricken patient has Ebola.
The preparations among health care providers across mostly rural Mississippi, considered to face a lower risk than states with big cities and more frequent airline flight connections to Africa, underscores the gravity with which U.S. officials view the worsening epidemic overseas and its potency as a national security threat.
“I’m confident that we are doing everything we can to prevent an Ebola outbreak in the United States,” Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said in a statement.. “I’m not overconfident. Things can go wrong. But I do think we have the most highly trained professionals on the face of the earth.”
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said that the state’s top health officer, Dr. Mary Currier, has assured him that the Department of Health “has been working to guarantee all the various components are in place and that we are prepared to respond to a possible Ebola case should it occur.”
“I understand the concerns of Mississippians with the recent news of a man in Texas being diagnosed with the Ebola virus,” Bryant said.
News circulated on Friday that a patient at Howard University Hospital in the nation’s capital also was hospitalized with Ebola-like symptoms after returning from a trip to Nigeria, but tests subsequently ruled out the virus as the cause of the patient’s illness.
Bryant’s office said that state agencies involved in the preparations will brief the governor on Wednesday at the State Emergency Operations Center.
The disease is surging through Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone faster than health authorities have been able to respond. While current estimates put the number of those afflicted in the thousands, the CDC has said that its worst-case computer model showed that, absent an effective response, 1.4 million people in Liberia and Sierra Leone will contract it by Jan. 20.
Michael Osterholm, head of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, likened the worsening epidemic to a forest fire that has been allowed to burn unattended for days.
In an article in Politico last week, he wrote that West African migrant workers who help with the harvest from May to October are now likely to spread the disease to as many as a half dozen neighboring countries. In the coming weeks, Osterholm said, they will wind their way from their villages, crossing borders along little-known trails. They’ll take temporary jobs in gold mines, cocoa nut and palm plantations, and illicit charcoal production operations, he said. They may be infected and not know it, because the virus’ incubation period extends up to 21 days before symptoms appear.
Mississippi remains an unlikely destination for Ebola victims.
Dobbs said that while a few health care providers and other state residents returned from West Africa over the summer, current travel restrictions seem to have halted such trips. Mississippi church groups that arranged missions to West Africa last year appear to have canceled any plans to do so this year, he said.
Nonetheless, Dobbs said his office has been preparing Mississippi medical providers for the Ebola threat for months, since the CDC began warning about the latest outbreak in Africa.
“We have a step-by-state guide for what to do if an Ebola suspect walks through the door,” he said. “We have links and information and guidance for every step of the chain for identifying who’s at risk, identifying what testing needs to be done, and all procedures in the hospital, including isolation, environmental care, waste disposal.”
Dobbs’ office has has tailored its own guidelines for health care workers, but ensures that any CDC alerts about Ebola developments are circulated round-the-clock.
He also is preparing for worst-case scenarios that could involve quarantining anyone exposed to an Ebola patient until the 21-day incubation period passes.
Another component, he said, would entail monitoring any workers who were exposed to an Ebola patient without wearing protective equipment so that “they could not subsequently transmit the disease if, in fact, they do become infected.”
“We’re worried enough to be prepared,” Dobbs said, “but we’re not panicked.”