A doctor who’ll be on the front line of care when the first of two Americans fighting Ebola virus infection arrives in Atlanta on Saturday says he’s not worried about catching the disease.
Although Ebola is deadly and virulent — it’s killed more than 700 people out of more than 1,300 infected in the current outbreak — staff at Emory are confident they can care for both patients safely.
“I will be one of individuals who will be coming in direct contact with the patients,” Dr. Bruce Ribner of the Infectious Diseases Division at Emory told a news conference Friday. “I have no concern for my (health) or the health of the other … health workers.”
That’s because even though Ebola is frightening and horrific, the hospital is well-equipped, and strict hygiene measures can prevent the spread of the virus.
The first patient will be either Nancy Writebol, a missionary who was infected while helping do hygiene work at a charity hospital in Liberia, or Dr. Kent Brantly, a young doctor with Samaritan’s Purse who was caring for Ebola patients.
Samaritan’s Purse and an allied group, Serving in Mission, say both Writebol and Brantly are in stable but grave condition. The federal government did not make the decision to move them — the charities did. Samaritan's Purse is covering the cost of the evacuation flights, a spokesperson told NBC News.
“We are so heartened that Nancy is in stable condition and that plans are underway to bring her back to the U.S.,” said Bruce Johnson, president of SIM USA. “We are grateful for the help and support of the U.S. State Department in this endeavor. As believers in the power of prayer, we covet the prayers of people around the world, not only for Nancy and Kent, but also for all those fighting this brutal virus.”
But it’s been up to the federal government to make sure they get across the Atlantic safely.
This is something we take very seriously,” President Barack Obama told a news conference. “As soon as there's an outbreak of any disease that could have significant effects, CDC is in communication with WHO and other multilateral agencies to try to make sure that we've got an appropriate response.”
The State Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have worked together to equip the private jet that will be used to ferry the patients, and the Department of Defense made arrangements for it to land at Dobbins Air Force Reserve base outside Atlanta, where security and isolation will be easier to arrange.
“CDC’s role is to ensure that travel and hospitalization is done to minimize risk of spread of infection,” the agency said in a statement.
“The patients will be escorted throughout by specially and frequently trained teams that have sufficient resources to transport the patients so that there is no break in their medical care or exposure to others," the Department of Defense added in a separate statement.
Only one patient will arrive at a time, but State Department officials confirmed both would be coming, and Emory confirmed both will end up in its isolation unit.
Other, similar units are at the University of Nebraska — which is also gearing up in case more patients come — and the National Institutes of Health.
“We have a special containment unit,” Ribner said. “The unit can safely care for a patient with a communicable disease.” Staff there have drilled regularly and are specially trained in infection control.
There’s nothing special about infection control. It’s more about being meticulous and careful than about using any high-tech equipment or supplies. But with something as deadly as Ebola, staff will wear multiple layers of protection, including full-body suits, eye protection, boots, and several pairs of gloves.
They’ll be sprayed with disinfectant such as chlorine when they exit and will peel off and dispose of every item after every visit, not matter how wasteful it seems.
“We have a group of four infectious disease physicians,” Ribner added. “We have two nurses for each patient in the unit, we also have sub-specialist for patients in this unit.”
CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said Thursday that any hospital with an isolation unit as part of its intensive care unit would be able to care for an Ebola patient. Patients with other infectious diseases, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Lassa fever, have been cared for in ordinary community hospitals without spreading infection.
But the Emory unit, operated with CDC, will add a layer of security and expertise.
It’ll be about more than physical care. It’s not going to be fun for the patients being so isolated and away from human touch.
“Our nursing personnel are very used to taking care of critically ill patients. We are very sensitive to the psychic needs of patients in isolation,” Ribner said.
In Liberia, Writebol’s husband David has been staying outside the window of their home or donning gear to come inside and see her, SIM officials say.
SIM and Samaritan’s Purse declined to give details about experimental treatments that Writebol and Brantly are being given. The charities said a single dose on an experimental drug was being given to Writebol after Brantly said she should have it. There are several experimental drugs in the works.
Samaritan’s Purse said Brantly got an infusion of blood, or perhaps serum, from a youth who had survived Ebola. Such treatment is controversial and experts say there’s no evidence it would help people infected with Ebola. Ribner said Emory would work with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on any protocols needed for handling their treatment.
Many Americans have questioned whether it’s worth the risk to bring Ebola patients home to treat them. Ribner doesn’t.
“We feel we owe them the right to receive the best medical care,” he said.