Following the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus in West African countries, and subsequent cases in the U.S., local Catholic hospitals are ensuring health care workers are prepared and up-to-date on protocols in the event that a case would be diagnosed locally.

Alice Brewer, director of infection prevention and associate health and wellness at Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee, said she cautions the general population from worrying too much about its risk of contracting Ebola because it’s “pretty low, but also because health care workers are trained in the various types of isolation protocols when they’re hired, and some are being re-trained.

“We are conducting re-trainings if they’re requested by our staff, so we’ll go and show them how to put on and take off PPE (personal protective equipment), answer any questions that they might have…” she said, noting that some have asked about what they need to be doing to prepare and what PPE they need to be using. “We want to make sure that they are over-prepared.”

Workers’ questions answered

Brewer said they’ve been answering the health care workers’ questions as quickly and as best they can.

“There are only a few of us that are able to answer the questions, so we’re trying to get to everybody in a timely fashion. …” she said. “We’re just referring them back to our standard isolation protocols and letting them know that we can provide them with additional training or re-training if that’s what they would like.”

Several departments have requested that Brewer and her team attend a weekly meeting for a Q-and-A session and demonstration of proper use of personal protective equipment.

She said they’re also staying in close contact with the Center for Disease Control, the Department of Health and Human Services, the World Health Organization and local health organizations, including the Wisconsin Hospital Association and Department of Health, and are receiving direction from its parent organization, Ascension Health.

According to Brewer, everybody in patient care at Columbia St. Mary’s is trained to care for a patient with Ebola, and would follow the same steps.

Symptoms and response

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states on its website that the symptoms of Ebola – fever of greater than 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit, severe headache, muscle pain, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, unexplained bleeding or bruising – can appear anywhere from two to 21 days after exposure to Ebola, but the average is eight to 10 days.

“If we have a patient that comes in with symptoms consistent with Ebola, and (has) traveled to West Africa recently, then they would immediately be isolated in a private room, and I would be notified, the Department of Public Health would be notified and the CDC would be notified, and at that time we would then take our direction from the state health department and the CDC as to what kind of testing to do on that patient, where to maybe transfer that patient,” she said.

Wheaton preparedness 

While health care professionals at Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare are also trained in infection control and universal precautions, Anne Ballentine, vice president of communication and public relations, told the Catholic Herald via email that they have been working around the clock with various preparedness teams and that additional training will occur at all points of entry.

“This includes training on donning and doffing (putting on and taking off) personal protective gear, what questions to ask to screen patients, what to do and who to contact if a patient is experiencing symptoms and traveled to West Africa or has come into contact with someone who has,” she said. 

According to Ballentine, health care professionals’ concerns “are definitely heightened since the first cases appeared in the U.S.,” but each associate will be trained appropriately for his or her role and if a case is confirmed, they would contact, and take direction from, the designated state health agency.

“All of our points of entry are preparing to handle suspected cases of Ebola and we are designating one hospital in each state that patients will be directed to in order to contain the virus to the greatest extent possible,” she said.

According to Ballentine, Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare has dozens of people involved in planning and hundreds in preparation.

“We have teams focused on points of entry including medical group clinics, another team on the Emergency Departments, and another on the inpatient setting,” she said. “The work includes education, communication, mock drills and development of tools for use in the care setting.”

Chaplains involved

Ballentine also said Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare has a strong commitment to holistic care and its chaplains are prepared to minister to patients in the event that a case of Ebola is diagnosed. 

“The chaplain as a member of the interdisciplinary team would talk with the patient and family to identify the patient and family’s spiritual resources and support systems in dealing with their present health challenges related to Ebola,” she said. “Our approach will recognize the importance of honoring the needs of each individual and family related to their religious, spiritual and cultural believes. In all cases, we would ensure the safety and protection of our chaplains, while providing high quality, compassionate care.”

Higher risk of getting flu than Ebola

While local hospitals are ensuring they’re prepared to care for a patient with Ebola, Brewer said people should remember that Ebola isn’t an airborne disease or transmitted through food or water, and it’s presence in sweat and saliva are low.

“It’s only transmitted through the infected bodily fluids of a contagious patient and individuals are only contagious if they already have symptoms. …” she said. “There’s actually a pretty narrow window of when you can catch the disease.”

Brewer also said casual contact with an individual who is already sick isn’t likely to transmit the virus, and used the example of Thomas Eric Duncan, 42, who died from the disease in Dallas Oct. 8. 

“All of his family members and the people that he was in close contact with, they’ve been cleared, they’ve already passed the 21-day mark and none of them are sick, so just being around somebody who is symptomatic is not enough, necessarily, to make you sick,” she said. 

The best way to stay healthy is using good hand hygiene, according to Brewer.

“Good hand hygiene is always a good idea,” she said. “The Ebola virus is susceptible to soap and water and alcohol hand sanitizers so washing your hands frequently is a always a good thing to do anyway, but it would kill the Ebola virus if you happened to expose yourself – that’s standard instruction to our staff as well. They know to wash their hands before and after changing their gloves and taking on and off isolation PPE.”

But Brewer said hand-washing is important anyway, especially now.

“It’s flu season, so get your flu shot. …” she said. “You’re honestly at a higher risk of getting the flu than Ebola.”