Amid Ebola crisis, local health care officials more concerned with preventing illnesses that could actually affect Summit
When a sick person walks into Summit County’s hospital with a drippy nose and a terrible cough, a sanitation station greets the patient at the door.
The informational display encourages anyone with symptoms of a contagious illness to wash their hands and put on a mask around their nose and mouth.
In some other parts of the world, people don’t have access to those same resources to prevent the spread of disease.
As of Aug. 31, according to the World Health Organization, the West African countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone have experienced about 3,700 probable, confirmed and suspected cases in the latest outbreak of Ebola virus disease, which has no proven vaccine or cure. Nearly 2,000 people have died.
The current crisis is the deadliest Ebola outbreak on record since it was discovered in 1976. People caring for the sick have been falling prey to the virus, especially those not properly equipped with or trained to use protective gear.
About a month ago, two American aid workers infected with Ebola while working in West Africa were brought to a hospital in Atlanta for treatment, causing people to question how easily the virus could spread in the U.S.
CONCERNED WITH LOCAL REALITY
Experts say the risk that anyone will contract Ebola in the U.S. is extremely small, as standard procedures for infection control would likely contain the virus, which is only spread through direct contact with bodily fluids.
“The Ebola virus isn’t really a threat to us, necessarily, because we have such great infrastructure,” said Amy Wineland, the county’s public health director.
The crisis overseas has made her reflect on the importance of emergency planning and preparedness and consider the disease management systems used on local, state and national levels.
Because Ebola is not a threat, “what we should be concerned about are more reality situations,” Wineland said.
Summit County sometimes experiences outbreaks of other illnesses, like E. coli, Giardia, pertussis and salmonella, she said. Influenza is a constant possibility every flu season.
At St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, infection preventionist Michaela Halcomb said because of the current speeds humans travel, infectious diseases can be transported from one side of the world to the other more easily than ever before.
As a resort community, Summit County might be more susceptible to illnesses than other communities less frequented by visitors.
“We see people from all over the world,” Halcomb said.
THE LAST OUTBREAK IN SUMMIT
Summit County rarely experiences outbreaks of any kind of disease.
The last pandemic was caused by a new strain of influenza, called H1N1 or swine flu, that infected local residents with widespread effects in 2009. Hundreds of school children stayed home sick that September due to suspected H1N1 infection, which spread to almost every country in the world that summer.
The county’s public health department held mass H1N1 vaccination clinics, Wineland said, and it would do so again in a similar situation.
Wineland said more recently, a couple people were diagnosed with Hepatitis A, which was linked to a recall of frozen berries. In that case, the issue was small-scale and quickly confined, but the department offered vaccines to people who thought they may have been exposed.
Other than those two events, Wineland struggled to think of anything that could be considered an outbreak in her more than a decade with the public health department.
At the hospital, employees use sanitation protocols standard in every health care facility in the U.S.
Anytime patients enter with symptoms like fever, rash, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or respiratory issues, Halcomb said, medical providers ask them about their recent travel history and whether they may have been exposed to a contagious illness.
“We are always on the alert,” Halcomb said. If the dots connect, “our process already is to mask those patients and separate them from everyone else in the hospital.”
Halcomb also regularly checks infectious disease databases that inform her if a certain illness could be spreading around the state or the country. She then passes that information to the rest of the hospital, so employees can be on high-alert.
As public health director, Wineland also checks those databases and uses the information in a variety of ways.
Her department communicates with the general public about any risks of food- and water-borne illnesses. County employees test water quality, conduct health inspections of restaurants and businesses, and regulate on-site wastewater treatment systems.
Wineland also coordinates emergency plans with the local hospital, law enforcement agencies and health care providers, and they practice responding to a disease outbreak scenario to test their plans and their staff’s training.
Then, Wineland said, she does education and outreach in schools and around the county to teach and support health habits, like handwashing, staying home when sick and coughing into the elbow.
“Residents in our community play a big role in stopping the spread of illness,” she said.
UPCOMING FLU SEASON
Vaccinations are another important piece of the puzzle, especially when it comes to stopping the spread of the flu.
Halcomb said flu season officially starts at the end of September and runs from October through April.
The height of the season in Summit County is usually around the end of January, she said, and last year one person was hospitalized for influenza and two were hospitalized the year before that.
Unlike a virus like Ebola, the influenza virus doesn’t have life-threatening consequences for most healthy people. Still, no one enjoys being sick, and Halcomb encouraged everyone to get annual flu vaccines earlier rather than later in the season.
In the next couple weeks, Wineland said, the public health department, among other clinics, will start offering the vaccines, which can be administered in traditional shots as well as forms other than the sometimes feared needle.
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