Fears of an Ebola outbreak in the United States hit home Tuesday as health officials announced that a patient at a Sacramento hospital was being tested for the virus that has killed an estimated 1,200 people in west Africa.
Doctors at the Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento Medical Center took a blood sample from the patient that was subsequently sent by the Sacramento County Public Health Laboratory to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
It will take several days to get the results and to determine whether the patient, who may have been exposed to Ebola, has the virus, according to a statement from the Sacramento County Department of Health and Human Services.
In a statement, Dr. Stephen M. Parodi, infectious diseases specialist at Kaiser, said the patient is being kept in isolation in a specially equipped negative pressure room, and staff are using protective equipment. The health provider released no other details, including whether the patient had recently traveled to a west African nation or whether there were symptoms of the virus.
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“The safety of our members, patients and staff is our highest priority. Our physicians and infectious disease experts are working closely with local and state public health agencies to monitor developments and share information,” Parodi said in a statement.
It appeared to be the first case of Ebola testing in California during the current epidemic and one of only a handful in the nation, according to public health officials and media reports. As of Aug. 13, none of those tested in the U.S. – in areas including Atlanta, Ohio and New York – have actually had the disease, according to the CDC.
A woman in New Mexico, who recently returned from Sierra Leone, remains in quarantine awaiting test results that should arrive this week, officials said.
Just 11 days ago, California Department of Public Health Director and State Health Officer Dr. Ron Chapman issued a statement saying no patients had required testing for Ebola in California.
“While the risk is low, state and local public health officials in California are monitoring the situation closely and taking steps to keep Californians safe,” Chapman said. If Ebola cases emerge in the United States, they would still pose little threat to the larger public, Chapman said.
“Our advanced health care system has appropriate protocols in place to prevent the spread of this often deadly disease,” he said.
Hospitals all over the country are on alert for patients who have recently traveled to west Africa and show Ebola-like symptoms, such as fever, vomiting and diarrhea. The CDC earlier this month issued extensive guidelines for hospitals on how to spot and treat Ebola patients.
Those familiar with the disease are taking their own precautions.
On Elder Creek Road in Sacramento, the Rev. Tim Wulah Jr. has been building his mostly west African church community at Friends in Jesus International Ministries since 2001, when refugees of Liberia’s long and bloody civil war began pouring in.
He said anyone traveling to the U.S. from Liberia today has to keep to themselves until the incubation period for the virus has passed.
“The word is out in the community that anybody who just came from Liberia has to stay away,” the pastor said. “We tell them they have to stay away for 21 days.”
“Even though the CDC and the medical field says Ebola’s not contagious until people are showing symptoms, we’re still afraid. Even me.”
A church member who works for the state of California has voluntarily quarantined himself since coming back from his sister’s funeral in Liberia a little over a week ago.
Kwasi Lawrence said: “I want to stay away from everybody. Stay home. Have everything I need in my apartment.”
Lawrence said he’d been monitoring his temperature and so far showed no signs of the fever that marks the onset of Ebola.
That spike in temperature is also what health officials look for at airport exit screenings in affected countries, including Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria.
In response to growing concern that the virus could break out in regions outside of west Africa, the World Health Organization announced in a statement Monday that exit screenings should be conducted of all travelers leaving international airports, seaports and major land crossings in the affected countries. Anyone with fever and other Ebola symptoms shouldn’t be allowed to travel.
Because Ebola is not contagious unless an individual is symptomatic, and ill patients in the affected countries are barred from traveling, the risk of transmission is small, WHO officials said.
Exit screenings for Ebola symptoms at travel hubs have not been required in countries that do not share borders with the infected countries.
The CDC insists medical centers in the United States can adequately manage the disease if they follow its standard protocols. The CDC calls for isolation of the patient in a private room, using protective equipment, and disposing of any equipment used on the patient.
Patients admitted to U.S. hospitals are suspected of having Ebola if they meet two conditions. They must have a fever of at least 101.5 degrees, along with other Ebola-like symptoms. And the patient must have made contact with someone with a suspected or confirmed case of Ebola in the last three weeks, or traveled from one of the virus-infected areas.
Jonna Mazet, a professor of epidemiology and global director of the One Health Institute at UC Davis, said the Sacramento case shows the protocols are functioning.
“It seems counterintuitive but this is really good news,” said Mazet, who studies diseases, like Ebola, that are believed to have been transmitted from animals to humans. “We should take this one case not as something to inspire fear but to tell us the system is working.”