Hospital, Penn State try to prepare for Ebola

Mount Nittany Medical Center
Mount Nittany Medical Center CDT photo

While the risk of an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. is very low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the State College area is prepared in the event the virus is found in the region, officials say.

At Mount Nittany Medical Center, protective measures and practices for dealing with events such as an Ebola infection have been in place for years.

“Ebola is essentially a hazardous material,” said Lou Brungard, Mount Nittany vice president for facilities and plant operations. “It’s like dealing with a corrosive liquid.”

Brungard said protective measures were refined as far back as 2001, when concerns arose regarding anthrax threats.

“What we’ve done recently is to pull out those generalized policies and practices and put in the disease-specific information about the Ebola virus itself,” he said.

From a personnel perspective, it’s all about ensuring hospital staff are comfortable and confident in what they are doing, he said. This includes being able to properly put on and take off the appropriate protective equipment, reducing the likelihood of exposure.

From a training perspective, this means demonstrations, exercises and practice, he said. “It’s back to the basics.”

Brungard also said patient isolation procedures that already are practiced will continue.

“The new emergency department design really lends itself to accepting patients under investigation,” he said. Patients would be accepted at a separate entrance then escorted to a negative pressure area of the department where the initial assessment and care would take place.

“Internally, we have a lot of tactics,” communications coordinator Erin Welsh said. “Our own intranet has a lot of information. We’ll be doing some simulations and staff trainings.”

Planning for Ebola began back in August, when Penn State students were returning from study abroad, she said.

About 80 Penn State students returned from studies in Africa. After a period of monitoring, all were cleared.

The university works with the hospital as a part of the Infectious Hazards Planning Group — which includes hospital personnel, University Health Services staff and State College Area School District staff — to address health issues that impact the community, Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said.

“The main concerns of this group are providing accurate, cohesive information on disease and potential outbreaks, tamping down false information and rumors that cause unnecessary alarm and preparing responses (protocol) for handling an outbreak of any type,” she said in an email.

When addressing international travel, she said, the university follows the guidance on training and procedures the CDC provided to the airline industry.

Five airports in the U.S. that receive a majority of travelers from the affected countries have enacted enhanced screening of passengers, she said. Two of the five airports — Washington-Dulles and Chicago-O’Hare — connect directly with University Park Airport.

“So international travelers arriving here from those airports already will have undergone enhanced screening,” she said.

As an additional precaution, university travel to Ebola-affected countries has been temporarily halted, according to the Global Penn State website.