As the hysteria about Ebola spreads, hospitalists who have been running most of the country’s ICUs will find themselves at the forefront of treating these patients when more of them present at our different hospitals. It is now time for America to come into the age of Ebola and treat Ebola patients in Ebola centers, in specific prefabricated buildings designed for this specific pestilence. It has been done successfully in Africa—specifically, Nigeria.
Our hospitals in North America are not designed to handle the kind of elaborate decontamination protocols that we now know Ebola requires; we lack the isolation chambers for staff decontamination and the rapid throughput for hazardous material that guarantee minimal environmental exposure before incineration that we are told is required for Ebola waste.
One thing that is clear from the Dallas, Texas Presbyterian Hospital fiasco is not only that the staff was not really prepared to receive its first Ebola patient, despite the false sense of security it was lulled into by numerous drills and reenactments, but also that this lack of preparedness was not solely a staffing or staff-related issue. Ebola was being treated as if it were MRSA, TB, or C. diff. Ebola is none of those. The stories of equipment failure and the pileup of contaminated waste should have come as no surprise. This is a situation like no other. And, not surprisingly, the hospital administration was caught unaware. It could have happened with almost any other hospital.
In Nigeria, where the infection was successfully contained, an Ebola unit was erected in just two weeks. It had a patients’ unit, decontamination unit, and an outside incineration unit. The patients also had to go through elaborate head to toe decontamination before they were released back into the community. I suggest that we look into building such units in a few major cities in this country. It needn’t take more than a few days to erect such prefabricated units in fairly isolated areas with temporary outside incineration units attached for disposal of medical waste.
This effort would afford healthcare workers the ability to don full hazmat gear, including boots, and, after contact with Ebola patients at the end of the day, to go into decontamination chambers, wade with boots through chlorinated pools to reduce contamination, and rinse gloved hands in chlorinated water before commencing ‘directly observed’ degowning. This protocol cannot be effectively performed in our regular U.S. hospitals the way they’re designed now.
The sooner we get on board with this, the better. Ebola is like no other infection we have encountered before in the U.S.
–Ngozi Achebe, MD
Hospitalist, Sunnyside (Wash.) Community Hospital