Warning signs

Valley Health issues Ebola notices

By Josette Keelor

WINCHESTER — Signs posted at entrances to area hospitals over the weekend direct visitors presenting with symptoms of Ebola not to enter the facilities.

Instead, the notices direct patients back to their cars where they should call the hospital from their cell phones. A medical staff member will screen each patient, asking questions specifically concerning Ebola so hospital staff can determine the safest way of transferring the patient into the hospital.

It’s all part of increased efforts to keep the community safe, said Dr. Nicholas Restrepo, vice president of Medical Affairs at Winchester Medical Center.

“We’re very happy to take care of you. We want to do it in as controlled a setting as possible,” Restrepo said.

Hospitals in the Valley Health System posted the notices on Friday, and Valley Health urgent care centers are expected to post notices this week. Currently only in English, the notices are being translated into French — the language of many western African residents. Valley Health is considering translations in Spanish as well.

Around the community, health care professionals are also being trained to recognize opportunities to screen patients for Ebola symptoms, including Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and 911 phone operators, said Dr. Jack Potter, medical director of Emergency Services for Valley Health System.

When callers dial 911 complaining of illness and requesting an ambulance, he said, “They’re going to get a question, ‘Have you been to West Africa?’ And that’s an appropriate question.”

Such questions and warnings could spark public fear of the potential for Ebola cases in the region, but Potter said the goal is to educate.

“This is a precaution; this is a way to protect each of us from that needle in a haystack. ‘Cause these patients will be a needle in a haystack,” he said.

So far, the only known transmissions of Ebola in the United States have occurred in Texas, he said. Other recent scares from Nebraska to Boston to Leesburg were false alarms.

With flu season coming up, he pointed out area residents will be experiencing symptoms similar to those of Ebola — headache, fever and vomiting. But the main factor of Ebola transmission is whether or not a patient was in western Africa or came in contact with anyone who traveled to western Africa in the last 21 days.

He’s not saying it can’t happen here.

Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C., is a popular destination for travelers from Africa, he said, “So a huge number of people traveling from Africa are traveling through Dulles. We’re not that far from Dulles.”

Involving EMS staff and 911 operators will help keep Ebola patients isolated from the rest of the community, Potter said. “Our engagement with this patient should start in their living room.”

Over the last several days, Valley Health has teamed with the Lord Fairfax Health Department to train staff in isolating and treating Ebola patients. The effort started in earnest following recent events in Dallas, Texas, when an Liberian traveler from western Africa succeeded in infecting two hospital nurses caring for him.

“This is not just reactionary,” Potter said, “… there’s a very thoughtful process that we’ve been involved in very closely for now going on at least 10 days, and again we’re reaching out, we’re learning what’s in the best practices from around the country.”

Near daily meetings and frequent staff drills at Winchester Medical Center have included providing a subset of nurses with a higher level of training in skills needed to protect themselves and others from Ebola.

Those chosen are the ones best suited for the job, Potter said. Protective clothing includes gloves, a mask and hood, with all parts of the body covered and impermeable to liquids.

“You can’t just put any nurse into this garb. I mean it’s claustrophobic, it’s all those things,” he said. Hospital staff has experienced such situations through other trainings that have taken place in the years following Sept. 11, 2001.

“We’ve seen the effects that this equipment has on staff, and so to make sure that your staff is emotionally, as well as physically, able to put it on and keep in on for a few hours really is important to the success.”

Valley Health has an “overwhelming” amount of necessary equipment also readily available to Warren and Shenandoah counties, Restrepo said. Those hospitals are trained to identify patients, isolate them from others and contact the Lord Fairfax Health District for information on safest transportation methods to Winchester.

Potter said “there’s a method to this madness.”

“This is precautionary, it’s thoughtful, there is a goal that makes sense and they can feel safe,” he said.

The bigger danger he foresees is community members afraid of accessing medical care for fear of getting Ebola.

If there were to be an Ebola case, the health district would have to inform the community.

“You can’t hide that,” Potter said.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com