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Preparedness Issues Linger as Ebola Worries Intensify | Commentary

With each passing day, unfortunately, comes more and more uncomfortable, gloomy, even downright terrifying news about Ebola, which the Boston Globe recent exclaimed in a headline as “the next great American panic.”

As the number of patients diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. increases, more and more Americans unsurprisingly feel that they are in danger of contracting the deadly disease, and even more fear a widespread epidemic in the U.S. is imminent.

Furthermore, many are now avoiding international travel while support for flight restrictions has grown considerably. Even school districts in Ohio and Texas, fearful of an outbreak, have temporarily closed.

The Healthcare Coalition for Emergency Preparedness shares America’s concerns, especially in regards to preparedness issues that have not yet been resolved. As we said in a recent letter to Congress ahead of Thursday’s hearing, Ebola has become a harbinger for our readiness to treat emerging exotic diseases only an airplane ride away.

Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently said, “We have to rethink the way we address Ebola infection control” — and the HCEP could not agree more. We should all work together to implement the right protocols and utilize the best American and international guidelines regarding infection control procedures to contain the disease and improve preparedness.

Here are a few simple solutions that can be implemented in a hurry: utilize designated treatment centers; establish protocols for patient movement; disinfect solid and liquid waste on-site and as close to the source as possible; and mobile waste sterilizers.

We know that some hospitals are simply not prepared or shouldn’t treat such exotic infectious diseases for various reasons and that our current system would be stressed if dozens of patients or more were infected. Instead, it would be smarter to route patients to pre-designated health care facilities (or large centralized facilities in the event of a larger outbreak), that have the proper protocols in place, a highly trained staff, complete on-site Ebola disinfection and necessary bio-containment units to treat and contain Ebola and similarly infectious, lethal diseases. Such an action would help maintain the integrity of our nation’s hospitals as we isolate patients away from others and allow for the efficient utilization of supplies, trained staff, and complete infection control on site. This would allow other hospitals to continue to safely treat the American public while Ebola patients are treated and the disease is contained.

There is also concern about how to properly handle and dispose of the waste product of Ebola patients. This is an often-misunderstood danger and public risk that we must responsibly and realistically address if we are to implement a complete “creation to sterilization” infection control process on-site where such patients are treated. In essence, it is vital that on-site sterilization of Ebola waste be performed before it leaves a facility. Likewise, liquid waste must be disinfected before it is put into a municipal sewer system. Utilizing autoclave sterilization and bleach solutions works best, CDC notes.

The good news is that we have already taken some great steps in this direction. The CDC, for instance, has clarified that Ebola waste is not the same as any other regulated medical waste and therefore, should not be handled or transported as so. So having the CDC or the State secure mobile waste sterilizers that could be deployed to medical centers in need would ensure we can treat the waste promptly and properly to better protect healthcare workers and the public.

In the end, it only seems appropriate to adopt more conservative measures to protect healthcare providers. Federal, state, and local policymakers should take a thoughtful, comprehensive approach by allocating our resources towards preparedness and response solutions for public health based on current and near ready technologies. By taking proactive steps now, we can make sure we don’t take the wrong steps later on.

Darrell Henry is executive director of the Healthcare Coalition for Emergency Preparedness.

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