A small woman with wet, blonde hair drove up to the valet stand at Ashley River Tower at the Medical University Hospital shortly after 8 p.m. on Sunday. She said she thought she had the flu.
First, she needed to move her SUV into the garage, hospital staff told her. The valet wasn’t available.
A few minutes later, she walked alone into the emergency room and said again, “I need to see a doctor. I think I have the flu.”
Normally, this wouldn’t raise any eyebrows. Thousands of South Carolinians are admitted to hospitals every year with influenza. But with Ebola on everyone’s mind, flu-like symptoms – fever, body pain, vomiting, diarrhea – pose a serious threat. This is particularly true at hospitals, which are racing to prepare themselves for a disease that they have no prior experience treating. That’s why – before this patient ever saw an MUSC doctor on Sunday night – a woman in financial services almost immediately asked if she’d recently traveled to West Africa.
She had not. This was just a drill – and one that MUSC seemed to pass with ease.
Catherine Templeton, the director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said she adopted the role similar to a “secret shopper” late Sunday, pretending she was a patient with the flu to see if MUSC and Roper Hospital staff were really prepared to handle a patient with Ebola symptoms.
Thirty minutes later at Roper Hospital, the impromptu drill went over just as smoothly, except that the attendant at registration did not immediately ask her if she’d recently traveled to West Africa. Templeton waited in the emergency room for about 10 minutes with a face mask that the front desk provided her before she saw a doctor who asked that question.
The president of the South Carolina Hospital Association told legislators last week that they all “are very much on alert,” but Templeton wanted to see for herself. No one at either hospital knew she was coming. She didn’t even bother blow drying her hair before she left the house.
“I didn’t ask the hospitals for permission,” Templeton said. “I need to understand exactly how it works and where the vulnerabilities are that we didn’t think about. ... You have to understand what really is going on to figure out where the holes are.”
The hospitals “have to be perfect to keep themselves safe,” she said.
Making sure South Carolina is prepared to handle Ebola – in the unlikely chance that a case surfaces here – largely rests on Templeton’s shoulders. This is the same leader who state lawmakers blasted last year for the way they perceived she handled a tuberculosis outbreak in Greenwood County. Templeton contends it was the local school district’s fault for failing to quickly notify parents that an elementary school custodian may have exposed their children to the disease.
The stakes, of course, are potentially much higher with Ebola. There is no known cure and it kills approximately 50 percent of all patients who become infected.
The current Ebola epidemic has killed more than 4,000 people, mostly in the West African countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, according to World Health Organization figures published last week.
On Thursday, Templeton testified before a state Senate committee that there are no known or suspected cases of Ebola in South Carolina and that the possibility of a widespread outbreak here is remote. Still, some hospitals are more equipped to handle the disease than others, she said.
Her undercover pop quiz for the Charleston hospitals on Sunday night was particularly timely. Federal health authorities told the nation’s hospitals on Monday to “think Ebola.” Over the weekend, officials confirmed that an infection control breach led to a Dallas nurse contracting the disease, and revealed that even in the United States, with the best conditions and protective gear available, mistakes can happen that expose more people to the virus.