To curb the fears of jittery health care workers nationwide, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday that it will send an Ebola response team within hours to any U.S. hospital that admits a patient who tests positive for the deadly virus.
The new teams will include epidemiologists and infection control experts who can assist hospital staffers in navigating the intricacies of Ebola patient care.
The move comes as emergency room staffers, nurses and other front-line caregivers across the country express concerns about a lack of training and proper equipment to care for Ebola patients.
“I’ve been hearing loud and clear from health care workers from around the country that they’re worried, that they don’t feel prepared to take care of a patient with Ebola. That they’re very distressed that one of our colleagues now has contracted Ebola and is fighting the infection in Dallas,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden. “A single infection in a health care worker is unacceptable. And what we’re doing at this point is looking at everything we can do to minimize that risk.”
Frieden said the new response teams might have prevented Nina Pham, a 26-year-old nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, from contracting the disease after she cared for Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. Duncan died a week ago.
“I wish we had put a team like this on the ground the day (Duncan) was diagnosed,” Frieden said. “That might have prevented this infection. But we will do that from today onward with any case anywhere in the U.S.”
Officials suspect Pham became infected through a breach in safety protocol, possibly the improper removal of personal protective equipment that she wore while treating Duncan.
The CDC did send epidemiologists and infection control experts to the hospital along with others who helped identify, locate and monitor 48 people who might have had contact with Duncan, after his condition was known.
But Frieden said the agency should have provided a more thorough response to assist the hospital with its first-ever encounter with an Ebola patient.
“In retrospect, with 20/20 hindsight, we could have sent a more robust hospital infection control team and been more hands-on with the hospital from day one about exactly how this should be managed,” Frieden said during a Tuesday afternoon press conference.
“I think when we look back, we say yes, we definitely should have put an even larger team on the ground immediately,” Frieden said. “And we will do that from now on anytime there’s a confirmed case.”
Pham remains hospitalized in stable condition.
Seventy-six other hospital staffers who may have treated Duncan or handled his blood specimens now are being monitored for symptoms of Ebola, Frieden said. None has shown signs of infection, but several have come in for observation, fearing the onset of infection. Frieden said it was better that they err on the side of caution.
“We would much rather see a false alarm than someone who lets their illness go on for a day and potentially gets sicker and potentially exposes others,” he said.
The 48 people being monitored for Ebola after having possible contact with Duncan are now considered unlikely to develop the virus after surpassing the two-week point of their three-week incubation period with no symptoms or fever.
“While it wouldn’t be impossible that some of them would develop the disease, they have now passed through the highest-risk period and it’s decreasingly likely that any of them will develop Ebola,” Frieden said.
The CDC has sent their most experienced Ebola experts to Dallas along with a team of laboratory scientists, hospital administrators and others to examine safety procedures at the hospital and make immediate improvements when necessary.
This includes designating an infection control site manager to make sure that safety procedures are followed in caring for Ebola patients. Two nurses from Emory Hospital in Atlanta who cared for Ebola patients have also been brought in by the CDC to retrain hospital staff in safety protocols for Ebola patient care.
The CDC wants to limit the number of staff at the hospital who care for Pham so they can become more familiar in handling protective equipment and more comfortable providing care in the isolation unit.
The agency is also looking at whether to send confirmed Ebola cases to any of four hospitals nationally that have special bio-containment units to handle exotic diseases.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization reported that 4,447 people have died from Ebola and 8,914 people have suspected cases of the virus. Most of the cases are centered in the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where “new cases continue to explode in areas that looked like they were coming under control,” a WHO press statement said.
“An unusual characteristic of this epidemic is a persistent cyclical pattern of gradual dips in the number of new cases, followed by sudden flare-ups,” the WHO statement read. “WHO epidemiologists see no signs that the outbreaks in any of these three countries are coming under control.”
In a bit of good news from Africa, if no new Ebola cases are discovered in Senegal by Friday, the World Health Organization will declare an end to that country’s Ebola outbreak after going the requisite 42 days of active surveillance without a new case. Nigeria, barring any new cases, will be declared Ebola-free the following Monday.
The WHO continues to call for more international assistance to help fight the disease in West Africa.
On Tuesday, FaceBook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced that they’re donating $25 million to the CDC Foundation to help fight Ebola.
In a post on their popular social website, the power couple wrote, “We need to get Ebola under control in the near term so that it doesn’t spread further and become a long term global health crisis that we end up fighting for decades at large scale, like HIV or polio. We believe our grant is the quickest way to empower the CDC and the experts in this field to prevent this outcome.”