HARRISBURG — The risk of a significant U.S. outbreak of Ebola, which has killed hundreds in West Africa, is “extremely low and close to non-existent,” the Pennsylvania physician general said Monday.
But Pittsburgh-area hospitals say they are prepared to treat a patient with the viral infection. UPMC has had an Ebola protocol for years, said Bill Smith, senior director of emergency preparedness.
“It’s really going to be very difficult for this disease to spread, but it’s not impossible,” Mr. Smith said.
A person who arrives at the hospital with a fever or other sign of possible Ebola infection would be screened for travel to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, where the outbreak is underway. Someone who fit those guidelines would be placed in a room designed for airborne isolation, although Ebola is transmitted through bodily fluids, not the air.
Access to the room would be controlled, and health workers would wear fluid-impervious gowns, face masks and two pairs of gloves.
Allegheny Health Network hospitals also has plans for isolating patients and shielding workers with protective gear, said Bruce MacLeod, chairman of emergency medicine at West Penn Hospital.
Many of the procedures at UPMC are already in place for the treatment of other infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and influenza, said Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician there.
There is no widely available anti-viral medication for Ebola, so patients are given supportive care, such as intravenous fluids or assistance breathing or maintaining blood pressure, Dr. Adalja said.
Symptoms of Ebola — fever, muscle and body aches, vomiting, diarrhea — can accompany other viral infections. So travel to countries affected by the outbreak would be the most significant factor in identifying a case here, said John Goldman, an infectious disease expert at PinnacleHealth in Harrisburg. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week advised avoiding nonessential travel to those countries.
“Right now, you can’t get it in the United States,” Dr. Goldman said on a conference call hosted by the Pennsylvania Medical Society. “So someone who has fevers, muscle aches, weakness, they probably don’t have Ebola. They have the common cold, flu.”
An American doctor who contracted Ebola in Liberia is being treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, and a second American also was expected to arrive in Atlanta for treatment.
If a person in Pennsylvania were diagnosed with Ebola, health officials here would work closely with the CDC to contain the infection, Carrie DeLone, the state’s physician general, said on the conference call.
Outbreaks in Africa have been amplified by inadequate safety measures for treating infectious disease, she said.
Dr. Adalja, of UPMC, said that while the illness is severe and can have dramatic symptoms, it is not easily spread. It is spread by direct contact with bodily fluids.
“I think Americans and Pennsylvanians and Pittsburghers, everybody needs to realize Ebola is not something that’s very contagious,” he said.
Karen Langley: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.