Hospitals need to give facts, not spin, on Ebola

Two months have passed since Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento Medical Center confronted a possible case of Ebola in its emergency room.

The news was chilling, but the hospital wanted to reassure the public. The patient, hospital officials said, had been treated according to the guidelines in effect at the time from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The staff had suited up in “personal protective equipment” and kept the patient in “isolation.”

Behind the scenes, though, the situation was less soothing.

Intake workers hadn’t asked for a travel history, so no one knew until a doctor asked that the patient had just been in West Africa, where the disease was raging. The patient sat in the waiting room for some 30 minutes before being sequestered, according to Dr. Stephen Parodi, regional director of hospital operations for Kaiser Permanente Northern California.

Nurses, meanwhile, thought masks were optional, so some worked bare-faced, says Diane McClure, a nurse and union rep at the hospital who has called for better preparation. Some staffers had no idea they were near a possibly lethal infection. And no quarantine was imposed on the four to six caregivers who handled the case over two shifts.

“We learned a tremendous amount from that experience,” Parodi says now.

McClure is less upbeat: “Had the patient actually had Ebola,” she says, “it would have been very bad.”

We dodged that bullet, and until McClure and Parodi described the scene this week to a Bee editorial board member, the details were never made public. Now, though, the spread of the disease in Texas and the panic around it have made some lessons clear.

One is that, as ever, the front lines in this health scare are being manned by all-too-vulnerable local health workers. And even though the chances of contracting Ebola in this country are almost zero, that fraction of risk is a life-or-death number, so it’s crucial that the health workers are protected and prepared.

Also a lesson, though: The public needs the unvarnished truth about that preparation. Too much is at stake for hospitals to imagine the community will be satisfied with some corporate spokesperson’s legally vetted version of “there, there.”

Even as the messy facts from Dallas were emerging, hospital systems here were stonewalling this week when asked for their strategies on Ebola. Only after Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, explicitly demanded their plans for informing the public did a couple of local hospital chiefs step up and start sharing information.

And the news, unsurprisingly, was that preparedness is evolving. Or, as the chief medical officer at UC Davis Medical Center termed it after a false Ebola alarm there, “a good learning experience.”

Learning is good. Even the CDC has done some. At Kaiser, a video on proper use of protective equipment has been issued, and training sessions for hospital workers were ramped up this week. We hope hospital systems will continue to learn – and keep us posted. Good information will be so reassuring if, as in Dallas, the emergency isn’t a drill someday.

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