Each time the Ebola virus makes the headlines, Dr. Craig Charles of Piedmont Medical Center in Rock Hill increases his diligence.
“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when” Ebola will come to Piedmont Medical Center, says Charles, director of the hospital’s infectious disease prevention department.
Charles based his prediction on the pace the virus is spreading, PMC’s proximity to Charlotte’s international airport and the fact that several aid agencies fighting the virus in West Africa are based in Charlotte.
There are no direct flights between Charlotte Douglas International Airport and West Africa, but it’s possible to fly between the two destinations via Brussels, Belgium.
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It means PMC must be prepared, up-to-date on the recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and be willing to go a step further, Charles said Wednesday.
The first death attributed to the latest outbreak of the virus happened in December 2013 in Guinea. The CDC issued its first warnings about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in March.
Intense local attention was focused on the virus in July when missionaries Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol of Samaritan’s Purse and SIM USA of Charlotte, respectively, were diagnosed with the disease. They were flown from Liberia to Atlanta where they were treated at Emory University Hospital.
Last weekend, it was announced that Nina Pham, a Dallas hospital nurse who cared for now-deceased Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan, had become infected. On Wednesday, it was announced that Amber Joy Vinson, another nurse at the Dallas hospital, had tested positive for Ebola. Vinson took a flight earlier this week from Ohio to Texas, a trip that federal health officials said should not have been taken.
To deal with the possibility of an Ebola patient, PMC has been continually refining its procedures as it learns more information on how to treat the virus, Charles said.
Workers at the hospital’s emergency department, and on its ambulances, have been trained on what questions to ask and what symptoms to look for. They also have been trained on how to put on – and take off – protective gear. Taking off the gear is critical as it could be contaminated with the virus.
Signs at the hospital direct people who think they may have been exposed to Ebola virus to go to the ambulance entrance of the emergency department. That’s where the decontamination room is. It has its own entrance, allowing hospital staff to separate possible Ebola patients from others at the emergency department.
Hospital personnel are prepared to test blood and take X-rays to determine if a person has the Ebola virus in a fourth-floor isolation room.
Whether a person would be treated for the Ebola virus at PMC in unclear. Carolinas HealthCare System and Novant Health recently announced they will treat Ebola patients at one of several large hospitals. Carolinas HealthCare’s plans call for all possible Ebola patients to be transferred to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.
Novant’s plans call for possible Ebola patients to be transferred to one of three regional medical centers: Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte, Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Prince Williams Medical Center in Manassas, Va.
If PMC has an Ebola patient, it would look to the CDC for assistance in treatment, Charles said.
The possibility of an Ebola patient comes at the outset of the flu season. Two deaths in South Carolina have been attributed to flu since September. There have been 131 lab-confirmed cases of the flu statewide, but none, so far, at PMC.
The Ebola virus and the flu share similar symptoms: fever, headache, muscle aches and coughing. Ebola symptoms are usually more sudden and intense than the flu, Charles said.
PMC officials are encouraging people to act quickly if they have the symptoms. It’s also a good time to get a flu shot as it takes about two to three weeks for the body to build immunity once the shot is administered, Charles said.
Hospital officials said they are already getting calls from people who fear they could have been exposed to someone who has Ebola. One call came from a man who attended a church meeting where there was an African in attendance. When he started feeling ill, he called PMC, officials said.
While it can be a legitimate concern, Charles said people should apply common sense. “Have you been around someone who has traveled to Western Africa?” Charles said.
How quickly someone feels ill is also a concern. The incubation period of the Ebola virus is between five to 12 days but it can be as quick as two days, or as long as 21 days, Charles said.
Dr. Tom Frieden, CDC director, said on Oct. 2 that the odds of contracting Ebola in the U.S. were extremely low.
Ebola is spread through direct contact with body fluids, according to the CDC. If an infected person’s blood or vomit gets in another person’s eyes, nose or mouth, the virus may be transmitted. A cough from a sick person can infect someone who has been sprayed with saliva, according to the CDC.
The Charlotte Observer contributed.