Only days after a breach in protocol left a Texas nurse infected with the Ebola virus, Novant Health officials announced Tuesday they have changed their policy, moving to a centralized approach, for handling potential Ebola patients.
Instead of treating Ebola patients at any of the system’s 15 hospitals in four states, they would be transferred to one of three regional medical centers – Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte, Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem and Prince William Medical Center in Manassas, Va.
This change matches the approach already adopted by Carolinas HealthCare System. An Ebola patient who shows up at any doctor’s office, emergency room or urgent care center in that system would be transferred to the largest hospital, Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.
Dr. Sid Fletcher, senior vice president for medical affairs for Novant’s Greater Charlotte market, said the change will allow the system to “focus training and preparation” for hospital staff who could be dealing with an Ebola inpatient. “Particularly in light of what we’ve been seeing nationally, it’s incredibly important to have precision in that training,” he said.
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Under Novant’s new plan, Presbyterian has set aside an eight-bed, locked intensive care unit on its sixth floor. Drills are being conducted for employees who work in urgent care centers and hospitals on how to care for an inpatient with Ebola, including how to correctly put on and take off protective gear.
Meanwhile, Fletcher said employees at all Novant locations remain on alert for any patient who has recently traveled in West Africa, where the Ebola outbreak is growing. All patients, not just those with fever and other symptoms of infection, are asked questions about their travel history, Fletcher said.
So far, Novant has not encountered a suspected Ebola case. At Carolinas Medical Center, doctors and nurses have isolated multiple patients who had traveled from Africa. But, so far, none has turned out to be infected with Ebola.
Ebola is contagious only after the onset of symptoms and is spread through unprotected contact with blood or body fluids from someone who is infected. The incubation period before symptoms appear is anywhere from two to 21 days.
Mecklenburg County health officials got experience with Ebola in August when Nancy Writebol, a missionary for Charlotte-based SIM, contracted Ebola while working in Liberia. The health director quarantined her husband, David Writebol, along with several other missionaries who returned from Liberia to the SIM campus that month. Nancy Writebol survived and was released Aug. 19 from Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
On Monday, North Carolina public health officials asked Carolinas Poison Center to set up a hotline to field questions about Ebola. The center, operated by Carolinas HealthCare, took about 15 calls on Tuesday, its first day of operation. Call 800-222-1222, then press 6, with questions.
“Things have been moving fast,” said Dr. Marsha Ford, the center’s director. “This nurse (in Texas) contracting Ebola has ratcheted this whole thing into another stratosphere.”
Over the weekend, news broke that Nina Pham, a Dallas hospital nurse who cared for the now-deceased Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan, had become infected with the Ebola virus. Federal health officials said Pham’s infection resulted from a breach in infection control protocols, but they have not yet identified the problem.
“We were having discussions about this even prior to knowing” about Pham, Fletcher said. “Knowing that that happened, we want to make sure that our staff knows that we’re doing the correct training and preparation to keep them safe, to keep other patients safe and to take care of that specific patient.”