Pennsylvania’s top health officials have a dual mission in the wake of the Ebola virus.
First, prepare for the possibility it shows up in the commonwealth. Secondly, calm a somewhat panicked citizenry.
“You cannot get Ebola simply by being near someone who is infected,” assured Health Secretary Michael Wolf during a state house hearing on emergency preparedness. “It is not spread in the air or in the water.”
But a healthcare crisis in Africa has become a crisis of confidence in some parts of Pennsylvania. Representative Lynda Schlegel Culver (R-Northumberland/Snyder) said constituents have been stockpiling water and buying suits and masks. She asked health officials if that’s appropriate and they basically said no.
“The public should go about their normal daily lives,” Wolf said. “We’re taking every precaution necessary to protect their health and safety.”
Pennsylvania will soon begin monitoring, for 21 days, anyone who travels from infected West African nations Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
“Finding these people before they become sick and monitoring them closely when they’re not contagious to anyone else is really what’s gonna protect the public at large,” Physician General Dr. Carrie DeLone said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now admits its protective suit protocol was inadequate in that Dallas hospital where one man died and two nurses were infected.
Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency director Glen Cannon says Pennsylvania’s protocols are superior, and he said he never trusted the former CDC standards.
“Because of the exposed skin, the lack of a hooded garment, and space between gloves and O.R. gowns,” Cannon said.
Cannon insisted the state’s about to purchase enough biohazard suits for all first responders. Representative Will Tallman (R-Adams/York) says he’s a volunteer at the Hampton Fire Department in Adams County and wonders whether those protective suits will make it to rural areas of the state.
“We don’t have that type of gear at Company 10 and we get dispatched for high fever,” Tallman said at the hearing.
Cannon promised that they’re coming and added that current 911 protocols require dispatchers to ask enough questions of patients to determine whether Ebola is a possibility before sending anyone to the scene.
“And then decisions can be made about who goes,” Cannon said.
The big question, of course, are Pennsylvania hospitals, urgent cares and doctor’s offices ready if a patient with Ebola walks through the door?
“I think every facility has certainly seen and learned from Dallas,” Wolf said. “We are very comfortable that our facilities are ready and can handle those situations.”
Ebola has gotten worldwide attention, but these officials think worry about it in the United States isn’t rational relative to other risks.
“How many individuals die of the flu every year?” DeLone asks. “Thousands die in the United States. How many people refuse to get their flu shots? How many people don’t wear their seat belts? How many people engage in risky activity? This – Ebola – is an incredibly low risk to any individual that lives in the United States. That’s the message we need to get to the public.”