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Florida hospitals prepare for Ebola cases

Published Oct. 1, 2014

TAMPA — Tampa General Hospital has planned for the day it might get a suspected Ebola case. Officials designated special rooms for such patients and purchased impermeable Tyvek suits, face shields and heavy duty gloves for the staff who would treat them.

The only step left is to train workers on how to handle the new equipment — something that will happen much more quickly now that the United States has its first confirmed case, in Texas, said Peggy Thompson, director of infection prevention at Tampa General.

"I guess we're going to be focusing on that a whole lot faster," she said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the nation's hospitals are ready to handle patients with the deadly, contagious Ebola virus. Jackson Health System in Miami has been planning for weeks for the Ebola cases that health forecasters said would arrive in the United States.

"We knew that according to the projection model (the U.S.) would be getting our first case around the end of September or first of October," said Dr. Abdul Memon, chief medical officer for disaster and emergency preparedness at Jackson.

Public health officials say hospitals that follow CDC's standard infection control recommendations can safely manage Ebola patients. That includes isolating patients in private rooms and equipping workers with fluid resistant gowns, gloves and face masks.

Tampa General went even further, investing in the heavy duty Tyvek suits. The hospital also designated its "negative airflow" rooms for suspected cases, Thompson said.

In these rooms, air from the rooms is immediately exhausted rather than circulated back into the hallways. These patient rooms, which are where tuberculosis patients would also be treated, have an "anteroom" where workers would immediately dispose of their protective equipment before leaving. Visitors would not be allowed.

Though Ebola is not an airborne disease, Thompson said the hospital wanted to add an extra level of security.

"We wanted to make the workers comfortable," she said.

Dr. Doug Holt, director of the Hillsborough County Health Department, said officials have reached out to several groups, including the University of South Florida and University of Tampa, that may have sent people to the affected African nations this year.

The message, he said, is that travelers returning to the United States should monitor their condition, especially for fever, within 21 days of their departure. Twenty-one days is the incubation period.

"We've had no one develop a fever or any other concerns," said Holt, who also is director of the infectious disease division at USF Health Morsani College of Medicine.

Holt said he has been heartened that physicians and hospitals have consulted his department about whether their patients might have contracted the disease on recent trips to Africa. "Usually they were in Africa but it was a thousand miles away from the affected countries," he said. "The good thing is the doctors are alert."

Contact Jodie Tillman at jtillman@tampabay.com and Tia Mitchell at tmitchell@tampabay.com