With the West African outbreak of Ebola escalating, state public health officials said Wednesday they were not surprised that the deadly virus may have reached Sacramento in the case of a patient who recently returned from a trip to one of the stricken nations.
The patient, held in isolation at Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento Medical Center, is considered at risk – albeit at “low risk” – of having the disease and possibly carrying it back to the capital region, state officials said.
California’s potential “Patient Zero” is isolated in a specially equipped room that’s required in all hospitals statewide to help curb the spread of serious communicable diseases. The hospital’s staff members are taking precautions to ensure their safety, wearing protective clothing, gloves, shoes and face masks.
Blood drawn from the patient was shipped by air Tuesday to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and results are expected in three days, said Gil Chavez, a senior epidemiologist at the California Department of Public Health.
“Californians travel to all parts of the world, so we were not surprised to find a possible case here,” Chavez said. “We knew it was a matter of time before we had a case in California.”
Nevertheless, he said, “It is unlikely that Ebola presents a significant risk to Californians,” in large part because U.S. hospitals are far better equipped to treat Ebola victims and nurture them back to health.
Hospitals in 27 states have notified the CDC of at least 68 cases nationwide that may involve the Ebola virus, the CDC reported. They include a New Mexico woman isolated at the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque and patients at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Maryland and an undisclosed hospital in Ohio.
Still, the health crisis in the West African countries of Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria is much more fearsome. Of those who have been sickened by the virus in the region, 55 percent to 60 percent have died. Like an uncontrollable wildfire, the disease has followed a fierce and unpredictable path, expanding into the largest outbreak of Ebola in history.
Already this year more than 1,200 people in West Africa have perished of Ebola, a frightening virus that causes bleeding, fever, headache, stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea so severe that many victims have died of dehydration. By comparison, the United States has not counted a single death from Ebola.
The notorious virus can be contracted by coming into contact with the bodily fluids of an ailing person. Nasal spray from a sneeze, as well as blood, vomit, sweat, spittle, bodily wastes, and fluids from sexual intercourse can spread Ebola. The virus, considered zoonotic because it passes from animals to humans, often is passed along to humans by fruit bats, a routine part of the diet for some West Africans.
In the absence of a living host, however, the virus perishes quickly.
“This is not a hardy virus,” Chavez said. “Touching things is not a problem once contaminated areas are cleaned up.”
Guidelines drawn up by the World Health Organization said people in Africa and elsewhere can halt the virus’ spread by disinfecting surfaces with ordinary household bleach, soap and clean water and sterilizing exposed items in boiling water for 20 minutes. The CDC has released specific guidelines for airline crews, including their cleaning and cargo personnel. Airlines are required to isolate as best they can passengers who seem sick and feverish.
Thomas Frieden, who heads the CDC, described in a New England Journal of Medicine article released Wednesday some of the procedures the organization is promoting to help stop the spread of Ebola. One tactic Frieden suggests is a campaign to provide West Africans with affordable protein sources as alternatives to bush meat.
The CDC has stationed dozens of Western health workers in West Africa to aid local caregivers and assist in the effort to track down people who may have come into contact with Ebola-sickened residents. Concurrently, the CDC has issued a travel warning advising Americans to postpone nonessential trips to the West African nations.
In particular, Frieden noted that with “extensive mobility and air travel in West Africa, Ebola could reach other countries. Each month, several thousand travelers from affected areas enter the United States.”
He urged U.S. clinicians to take a travel history of anyone who appears ill with Ebola-like symptoms and promptly isolate and test those who have returned from the West African regions in the past 21 days.
“We are also assisting the four affected countries to improve their exit-screening protocols to help protect the rest of the world, including the United States,” he wrote. At many airports in West Africa, passengers are being screened for fevers before they are permitted to travel.
As for the local traveler who recently returned to Sacramento from a trip to West Africa, his or her identity will remain secret due to privacy laws. State officials also refused to release information on the patient’s age, gender or ethnicity.
With Sacramento having a such famously diverse population, state authorities also refused to release the name of the country the patient visited.
Dr. James Watt, chief of communicable disease control for the state, said if the destination nation were revealed, there would likely be a corresponding community here that would be able to identify the patient.
If the blood test comes back positive for Ebola, however, public health workers will fan out across the county, if need be, to find others who may have come into contact with the patient. Then, each of them will be examined for signs of illness, tested and possibly isolated if an Ebola infection appears likely.