New York Says It’s Ready for Ebola, but Many Health Workers Aren’t So Sure

By | October 22, 2014

Millicent Gist, a receptionist at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, was surprised to hear her facility was an officially designated hospital for people suspected of having Ebola in New York City.

That’s disturbing, Gist said, because she’s often the first person patients talk with when they come to the hospital.

Gist learned of Montefiore’s status at a training session held yesterday at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan that drew more than 5,000 city health-care workers.

Sponsored in part by the Greater New York Hospital Association and a union, the three-hour session was designed to help prepare health workers for the appearance of Ebola in the New York City region. While Mayor Bill de Blasio touted the city’s readiness, many workers weren’t as convinced.

Montefiore has held regular training sessions since the summer, Helene Guss, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. The hospital has “intensified our efforts in the recent weeks as new guidance has emerged,” she said.

Health institutions around the U.S. have said they’re working to prepare for a possible Ebola case, though the level of readiness varies. The American College of Emergency Physicians will feature Ebola at a conference in Chicago this month. In California, however, nurses said there wasn’t a hospital in the state ready for an Ebola case.

Uncertain Response

Michelle Rosas, a patient service representative at a medical clinic in the Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens, said she sees West African patients regularly. Before yesterday’s training, she didn’t know how to react if a patient, or a family member, showed up with a travel history and symptoms of Ebola that can mimic the flu, she said.

“We have a lot of foreigners, we have a lot of Africans,” she said. The only protection health-care workers at the clinic have been given for Ebola, Rosas said, “are masks. We got fitted for that.”

New York health officials have said they’re preparing. “We recognize that health-care workers in New York City are concerned about their risk, which is why we’ve taken such extensive steps to provide them with the information and resources they need,” said Jean Weinberg, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Ebola has heightened anxiety in health-care facilities around the U.S. after Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national, flew to Texas with the virus.

Nurses Infected

Duncan died in a Dallas hospital on Oct. 8, but infected two nurses who were treating him.

The nurses, now being cared for in hospitals in Atlanta and Bethesda, Maryland, may have been infected because they were unfamiliar with their protective equipment, said Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has since expanded its training programs on the equipment and tightened hospital protocols on Ebola.

“This affects everyone at every level,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said yesterday at the training session. “This is doctors, this is nurses, this is hospital administrators, this is lab techs, this is radiology technicians, this is food service, this is laundry, this is security, this is transportation. Don’t say this isn’t me.”

“We know that we’re ready,” De Blasio said. “We have the best-trained people and the nature of the best is to keep working at being the best.”

No New York Cases

While hospitals in the New York region have had patients suspected of being infected with Ebola, none of the cases have been confirmed. Several nurses at the session said, though, that it was only happenstance that Ebola appeared first in Texas, rather than in New York.

“To be honest we hadn’t had any preparation” to deal with someone with Ebola symptoms, said Adrienne Channer, a unit clerk at a local medical center that sometimes treats emergency cases. “This is why they sent us here. We’ve just been hearing about it on the news so far.”

“It is scary,” added Lesline McGrowder a nurse’s aide. “It’s just like when AIDS came out, but we’re going to get over it once we get educated.”

The session, organized by 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, was designed to teach everything from how to put on and remove protective equipment, to how to dispose of hazardous waste.

At times, workers at the meeting seemed surprised by the messages they were hearing. For instance, loud gasps came from the audience when demonstrators showed it was necessary to use alcohol-based disinfectant more than five times when removing protective equipment.

Hospital Preparation

Meanwhile, cheers erupted when Mary Bassett, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, read aloud a question that asked if hospital administrators would be held to account if they didn’t adequately prepare.

“The state health commissioner has issued commissioner’s orders requiring compliance,” she responded. Additionally, two weeks ago, Cuomo ordered all hospitals go through an Ebola preparedness drill.

In California, nurses said there are deficiencies in the state health system when it comes to readying workers for Ebola.

“We cannot name a hospital that we feel comfortable with, for patients in the state of California to attempt to have the appropriate response in an Ebola situation,” RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association and National Nurses United told reporters following a meeting with California Governor Jerry Brown.

California Steps

Brown said in a statement that California is “taking steps to help ensure health-care workers, hospitals and first responders are prepared to treat and care for patients with Ebola,” though he didn’t directly address nurse’s concerns the state’s hospitals are ill-equipped.

Texas Governor Rick Perry announced the creation of an Ebola treatment and infectious disease bio-containment facility in North Texas, one of the first measures undertaken by a newly formed state task force focused on the virus.

“In the event of another diagnosis this facility will allow us to act quickly to limit the virus’ reach,” he said in a statement.

Perry created the 16-member group of scientists and other public health experts Oct. 6 after the first case diagnosed in the U.S. was found in a Dallas hospital.

With assistance from Darrell Preston in Dallas and David Knowles in San Francisco.

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