Despite the unlikelihood that the Ebola virus will come to Ann Arbor, experts at the University of Michigan Health System, the School of Public Health and University Health Service are working to construct a response plan to the virus.

The worldwide death toll from the viral disease is more than 4,500 as of Oct. 17. The vast majority of the deaths have occurred in the West African countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. However, efforts to contain the virus seem to be making headway as the Centers for Disease Control recently declared Nigeria and Senegal Ebola-free.

On the home front, national concern has increased after Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man visiting family in Dallas, became the first person in America to die from Ebola Oct. 8.

That national attention prompted a formal response from the University Tuesday afternoon, when Robert Winfield, the University’s Chief Health Officer, sent an e-mail to the student body regarding the school’s current preparation for Ebola.

“We are behaving in a way to maximize preparedness, minimize risk and not alarm people unnecessarily,” Winfield wrote.

The University has already issued travel warnings for students in countries that are heavily affected by the virus. Additionally, a protocol for students returning from affected regions has been established.

At UHS, patient screenings have become more detailed, particularly in regards to travel histories for patients who report fever or other Ebola-like symptoms.

“We never did this level of screening in the past,” Winfield said. “This is all in response to concern of this infectious disease.”

Epidemiology Prog. Eden Wells, associate director of the preventative medicine residency, said all University health units are making ongoing progress of developing a protocol to handle a potential Ebola patient.

“If there is a suspect case, the leadership of the University, Dr. Winfield, and the hospitals system will be immediately notified,” Wells said. “The Public Health Department will work to immediately assess risk, and they will work in partnership with the state health department and the CDC to determine that level of risk.”

From that point forward, treatment depends on whether or not the patient shows symptoms. If they were exhibiting symptoms, the patient would be put into isolation under the supervision of infectious disease experts. In the event that the patient were a student, decisions regarding their course of treatment would be determined by the Public Health Department, the CDC, and the local hospital system.

If a student were to return from an infected region, and did not exhibit symptoms, they would still need to be placed in a quarantine with constant monitoring until the 21-day incubation period — the longest time an individual can experience between initial exposure and exhibiting symptoms — of the virus has ended.

Internal Medicine Prof. Sandro Cinti, a specialist in infectious diseases, confirmed what experts have said about the disease in Michigan — namely that the threat is extremely low — but said UMHS is preparing anyways.

“We have been preparing since we knew there is a possibility that somebody from (West Africa) could come in and so what we are preparing for is making sure we catch any potential patient as early as possible and then isolate that patient and protect our healthcare workers,” Cinti said.

According to Winfield, a potential Ebola patient would immediately be placed in an isolation room to prevent spread of the disease to other patients or hospital staff. UMHS currently has 32 isolation beds, which are generally used for respiratory infectious disease. While UMHS — along with any other major health system — must prepare for the possibility of admitting an Ebola patient, current U.S. cases are being treated at only a small handful of medical centers with specialized biocontainment units.

Winfield said the exact location where a potential Ebola patient would be treated at UMHS is still under discussion.

“There is no existing Ebola unit at this time,” Winfield said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.

Last week, the Michigan Nurses Association expressed concern that nurses across the state were not properly trained to handle a suspected Ebola case.

“MNA is working aggressively with our nurses and their employers to ensure that RNs have the proper equipment, training and staffing to safely care for individuals with Ebola,” the association wrote in the release.

Winfield said the nurses at UHS will be trained this week and they will follow the CDC’s protocol of handling an Ebola patient.

Sandro Cinti said the health system as a whole is currently working to establish a team of hospital staff that would treat an Ebola case. Administrators are taking particular care to ensure staff are well-trained in the use of PPE — personal protective equipment — which is critical in stopping the spread of the disease. A breach of PPE protocol is thought to have led to the infection of two nurses in Dallas who treated Duncan, the Liberian man who died from Ebola despite receiving palliative treatment in the United States.

The size of the team and the amount of time that a healthcare worker would spend with the patient in an isolation unit have not yet been determined.

“There will be a limited number of workers working with Ebola patient and they will be chosen based on the CDC criteria,” Cinti said.

Additionally, EMS staff is training for a scenario where an Ebola patient shows up at a clinic instead of at the hospital. Primary concerns for EMS protecting the drivers and paramedics, as well as decontaminating the vehicle carrying the infected patient.

“The plan has primarily focused around the emergency department and staff,” Winfield said.

Last week, the University’s Emergency Department held a training session in conjunction with St. Joseph Mercy Hospital involving a mock patient.

The cooperation and communication between health units in Washtenaw County — including the University, St. Joseph Mercy Health System, and both the local and state health departments — makes this region particularly efficient in both emergency planning and response, Wells said, something many counties throughout the U.S. struggle with.

Organizations such as the Washtenaw County Medical Society, which brings together representatives from each of these organizations to foster quick and coordinated procedures, put the region in a good position to combat risks associated with the virus.

At the moment, officials are confident that these measures, as well as continued preparation efforts, will prove sufficient in combating the threat. Wells said it is important for the public to stay informed on the threat, but encouraged them not to get distracted by various theories, misunderstandings, and perhaps even conspiracy theories that appear through social media and other outlets.

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