Unlike many infectious diseases, especially ones with a relatively small number of occurrences, the Ebola outbreak that started in 2014 received a sensational amount of attention. While many in public health keep tabs on outbreaks (thanks ProMed!), it’s not uncommon for the rest of society to remain blissfully unaware unless the bug comes knocking on their front door. I’ve been captivated with Ebola (now called Ebola Virus Disease, or EVD) since a young age after Richard Preston’s sensational book, The Hot Zone got passed to me during a family vacation. The first whispers and later emails of the surging cases in West Africa were pretty astounding in early 2014. Usually these outbreaks occur in small blips and then die off a few weeks or months later. I was working in Infection Prevention & Control at a pediatric hospital at the time and, like many, didn’t think too much about the outbreak pertaining to the US and even if it did, our infection control practices should be able to handle an organism that required Contact/Droplet isolation. I put some updates in our monthly newsletter and continued to watch as West Africa became overwhelmed with EVD.
Like many public health issues, no one really starts hitting the panic button until a disease shows up and you’re scrambling (and trust me, most of the time, you find out retrospectively) to do damage control. The IP (infection prevention) world started to get worried in late July when Emory University Hospital accepted and began treatment the first two EVD patients transported into the US from their field assignments in West Africa. Questions about isolation and practices were asked, but again, no one really worried too much since these patients were flown directly to Emory due to their special infectious disease isolation unit. Suddenly, on September 30th, 2014 a media storm announced that a patient being treated at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Texas, was positive for EVD. I can personally tell you, this is when the proverbial crap hit the fan for just about every healthcare facility and IP in the US. A visiting your emergency department, being sent home, and then coming back with a highly infectious disease that few physicians know well enough to suspect, let alone diagnose or treat, is pretty much the equivalent of an IP nightmare. So what could we do?
First, I should say that every hospital with an IP team (most of them have at least one IP) experienced a massive level of panic, anxiety, and stress dedicated to avoiding this, so please, give them a pat on the back. I am fortunate that my IP team consists of not only enthusiastic, ridiculously talented and intelligent people, but they know how to respond to crisis in the flip of a switch. We quickly pulled together a committee to encompass all people that would play a role in the preparedness and response of an EVD patient. Fortunately, by this time, Emory had released an extremely helpful document that discussed their experiences and lessons learned. We met our committee (now filled with people from environmental services, facilities, nursing, medical staff, infectious disease, emergency preparedness, the emergency department, and many others) with this document and everything else the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had on EVD response. For many, the difficulty laid in where do we put this patient, what designated staff will care for them, and what will we do with the waste? You pretty much need to have a specific process for both your emergency department if there is a suspected case, but also a designated wing you can move patients out of and move this potential EVD patient into. Without going too much into detail, one of the trickier components became the PPE (personal protective equipment) and waste process of a potential patient. CDC PPE recommendations were changing almost daily (or at least that’s how it felt). Information was changing so rapidly it was a constant cycle of checking their website, talking with peers, and attempting to update instructional handouts and training tools for staff incase we happened to get a potential patient. Historically, EVD PPE recommendations came from outbreaks in Africa with little access to the equipment and capabilities we’re used to in the US. The ability to intubate a patient or insert a central line opened up a Pandora’s box of potential transmission scenarios, leading to difficulty in establishing a solid PPE process. Acquiring the PPE was another struggle. Our materials management team worked tirelessly to find the ever changing products we would need to not only have PPE kits in our emergency department and urgent cares, but also to sustain care for a patient for several days. The sustainability was a huge concern as staff were changing in and out of PPE every 45 minutes due to heat exhaustion and CO2 build-up from the N-95 masks. Once we were able to obtain the PPE, and this was a constantly changing cycle to follow CDC recommendations, training went into effect. One of the greatest struggles was training enough staff to have a proficient understanding of an extremely complex (and dangerous) process. The unique part about EVD PPE practices is that you utilize a buddy system with a checklist – something healthcare workers are not used to and something we had to remind them of (don’t try and memorize this)! We did several drills involving patients projecting a mixture of chocolate syrup and glitterbug to not only prepare healthcare staff, but also show their cross contamination when doffing the PPE.
The PPE struggles were one small piece of this EVD pie. Many IP’s could probably write a novel about the struggles and random problems that came up during this time. Our ridiculously long days were filled with preparedness meetings, educational trainings, hospital-wide communication, worried calls from people and staff (the comical relief of people calling to ask for an EVD vaccine but refusing to get their flu shot showcases the ridiculousness of what we experienced), educating physicians on signs and symptoms, identifying routes for patient transportation, and coordinating surveillance mechanisms like electronic mandatory travel history (from the affected countries) questions and alerts in the intake process of patients from the emergency department or urgent cares. The simple truth is that the US became so panicked and so obsessed with a disease no one really worried about a few months before, the amount of preparedness that was initiated simply couldn’t be maintained for an extended period of time. Emergency departments and hospitals are comprised of some of the most hardworking and intelligent people you’ll ever meet, but I can honestly say, something like what happened in Dallas could’ve happened in any hospital. Healthcare is an imperfect system and while we struggle to make it better and more robust, it always comes down to overworked staff and communication gaps. My experiences as an IP during the EVD 2014 outbreak, while exhausting, were truly eye opening to the ability of our healthcare infrastructure to respond to such an event. It revealed a lot of gaps in our practices and the state of our preparedness, but overall, it highlighted the growing need for better disease surveillance, preparedness, and attention to biosecurity.