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Is North Carolina Prepared For Ebola?

Ebola Sign
Leoneda Inge

The first diagnosed Ebola case in the United States and the first death, has raised awareness of the deadly disease from California to the Carolinas.

Hospitals and health professionals are especially on alert.  The state Department of Health and Human Services has been working closely with health care providers since the summer, to prepare for the possibility of an Ebola patient being diagnosed here.

About 1,000 people come through the Emergency Room doors at UNC Hospitals on a weekly basis.  That’s why public health officials say they have to be prepared for the worst.

Dr. David Weber is a Professor of Epidemiology at UNC and Managing Director of Infection Control. 

“Of course, as we saw in Dallas all hospitals in the US need to be prepared for somebody walking in their front door with Ebola, and we are prepared," said Weber.

This week at UNC’s Emergency Room and many of its clinics, patients were greeted with signs featuring pictures of a simply drawn airplane and round faces that look extremely sick.  The sign reads - “Attention All Patients, if you recently traveled internationally or had close contact with someone who recently traveled internationally and was ill, and you have a fever, cough, trouble breathing, rash, vomiting or diarrhea, Please Tell Staff Immediately.

Weber says they’ve been tweaking emergency preparedness plans for a long time.

“Our preparedness goes back to concerns during the first Gulf War with bio-preparedness, obviously with the SARS outbreak and with Anthrax," said Weber.

Still, they are taking special precautions with the possibility of Ebola.

'We've designated an area of the hospital where we would take care of the Ebola patients that's separate from our other clinical areas and from out intensive care unit.'

“We’ve designated an area of the hospital where we would take care of the Ebola patients that’s separate from our other clinical areas and from out intensive care unit," said Weber.  "We could potentially take care of more than one patient if we needed to at a time, although, we’re envisioning only a single patient at a time.”

Protective Gear

The doctors and nurses aren’t the only ones on alert.  Dalton Sawyer is Director of Emergency Preparedness for UNC Health Care.  He has laid out on a table the type of protective gear workers will need to wear if caring for an Ebola patient.  The list includes full body suit with hood, special boots and a face shield.

“Any time we’re talking about a contamination, the areas we are most concerned with are mucus membranes, the eyes, the ears, the nose the mouth, places like that," said Sawyer.

And Sawyer says it’s just as important to put the protective gear on correctly as it is to take it off.  Sawyer says hospital workers can expect to be quizzed.

Ebola Safety
Credit Leoneda Inge
UNC's Dalton Sawyer tries on safety gear health care workers would wear caring for Ebola patients.

“We send individuals with scripts out to different places within the hospital saying, 'I have this, my stomach hurts, I have that and I have been to this place,' to test the responses of staff," said Sawyer.  "Because if we don't do that, we don't really know how the staff are going to respond and how prepared we really are."

At Duke University Medical Center, they are also preparing.  Dr. Cameron Wolfe, is an Assistant Professor of Medicine and works with Infectious Diseases.  He says there’s a lot to be learned from hospitals in the U.S. that have already had experience with Ebola.

“So we have already reached out and had extensive conversations with Emory Hospital, with the CDC, with the University of Nebraska, places that have already had to go through iterations and have what we think are really Gold Standard plans to say look, let’s make sure we compare what we’re doing here and really make sure it’s is as good as it could be," said Wolfe.

Officials at the state Department of Health and Human Services says it’s been working closely with health care providers since July.  That’s when there was an Ebola scare at a hospital in Charlotte at the Carolinas Medical Center.  The case reportedly turned out to be Malaria.

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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