NYC hospitals increase Ebola preparedness

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EAST HARLEM (PIX11) -- There are no Ebola cases in New York City, but at least two new developments in the Northeast U.S., including a situation in the greater New York metropolitan area involving the virus, highlight how the epidemic is hitting closer to home.

They also underscore how important it is for local hospitals, which are already on the alert for cases of the virus, have to keep their high levels of preparedness fine tuned.

"We do drills," said Dr. Peter Shearer of Mt. Sinai Hospital. "This morning, where Mt. Sinai, along with with our disaster preparedness people here, set up a drill where we had a pseudo patient come in, and had symptoms."

The exercise is key in amping up the diagnostic and treatment skills of an emergency room that has already proven itself to be highly capable of handling severe infectious disease.

Two months ago, Dr. Shearer led a team that isolated a patient who'd returned to New York from West Africa, and was thought to have contracted Ebola.

In that case, it took emergency room staff just seven minutes to completely isolate the patient from the rest of the hospital population. He ended up testing negative for the virus, but it was invaluable practice for new developments happening now.

Seventy miles north of Manhattan, in New Haven, Connecticut, doctors and staff at the Yale Medical School prepare for two students from the prestigious medical college to return on Saturday from Liberia. For the past two weeks, the pair of students were in the country that's the epicenter of the outbreak, helping to track the spread of the virus.

When they return to the Tri State, they will voluntarily isolate themselves for 21 days, most likely in their homes, where there temperature will be taken at least twice per day, to ensure they don't have fevers, one of the first indications that a person may have contracted Ebola.

If it turns out that they've contracted the illness, they'll end up in the same sort of place where a man in Washington, D.C. had been sent on Friday, an isolation room in a hospital E.R. The man, at Howard University Hospital, has shown symptoms for the virus, but is still being tested for the illness, while he waits in the isolation room.

"It's different from some of the other" parts of the emergency room, Dr. Shearer said. "This room has negative pressure air flow," among other features.

He walked to the airtight sliding glass door of the room, and pulled the latch shut, to demonstrate. "When the door is closed.," Dr. Shearer said, as a bright pink ping pong ball rolled into the bell of a glass indicator jar on the wall, showing that air in the room was circulating up and out of the space, "air is not going out the door that way." Instead, it's drawn up and into the ceiling and a filter system that's separate from the rest of the E.R.

The room can also be configured for the set up of a portable commode, as well as clothing and bed linen disposal -- all in isolation from the rest of the hospital's patient population. "It's an abundance of caution," said Dr. Shearer, who is by no means a critic of the extra layers of preparedness, even though there is no known Ebola threat in the New York metro area.

Shearer did say that he had recently met with health officials for the United Nations, which is, of course, located on Manhattan's east side in Midtown. It's one of many entities in New York, the country's most international city, where thousands of people have regular contact with West Africa, where the epidemic is so severe that it runs the risk of becoming a plague.

Shearer said that the protocol for handling people who have recently traveled to West Africa or have had contact with someone who has, is to monitor their temperature. As long as the person does not develop a fever, they are not required to be quarantined.

In other words, there are thousands of people roaming the New York area who have recently been in parts of the world where Ebola is rampant. Still, said Dr. Shearer, that is not at all cause for concern. After all, if there is an Ebola case diagnosed in New York, it's very likely that he'll have direct contact with the patient, and Shearer is not worried.

He said that he and the staff of Mt. Sinai Hospital have proven that they are prepared, and if anything have only sharpened their skills for dealing with patients with severe infectious disease.

So if he is not worried about the condition that can only be passed on through contact with bodily fluids of an infected person, he said that the general public should not be overly concerned. "There's potential," Dr. Shearer said, "for a lot misinformation and a lot of hysteria because, well, people are scared."