Doctors from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene today presented the city's plans for handling Ebola virus in the unfortunate event that it spreads to New York.
With the large influx of passengers traveling in and out of JFK, doctors Celia Quinn and Isaac Benowitz assured the board (and concerned reporters) that New York City has been working since August to instate protocols to handle Ebola. Despite numerous scares, the doctors were quick to point out that no cases of the disease have been found in the Empire State.
Still, Benowitz said, the volume of commerce and travelers to NYC make it an automatic target. "In New York City we're always on guard against diseases that are more prevalent elsewhere," he said.
Ebola is tough to pin down—its symptoms are extremely similar to those of an array of other illnesses. To avoid an incident like the one that happened in Dallas, in which an Ebola-stricken man was sent home from the hospital, New York doctors are trained first to ask about a patient's travel history. If they have traveled to an Ebola-infected zone within 21 days, they are to be isolated in a private room until more information is collected. Physicians are then to report "persons of interest" to DOHMH, which will have staff on-call 24 hours a day.
The patient can then be tested at a DOHMH lab, and results can be obtained between six and eight hours. While there is no proven cure for Ebola, a patient hospitalized under intensive care has a much better shot of making it out alive. (In West Africa, the fatality rate is a grim 70 percent.) Bellevue Hospital has become New York's official Ebola intake center, and is now equipped with beds in an isolation ward for confirmed cases, in addition to a lab that can safely handle Ebola blood tests.
So far, DOHMH doctors have received 88 calls, with 11 people identified as "persons of interest." Of these, eight were found to have malaria, one had typhoid, and the others were undiagnosed. The other 77 were determined not to be infected, either because they'd not traveled to an Ebola-infected area, or they lacked symptoms to suggest Ebola. [PDF]
One of the unresolved issues is how to dispose of Ebola-associated waste, since hospitals are not accustomed to processing such large amounts of deadly contaminated materials. In the case of the Dallas patient, the hospital that treated him was forced to wait for the Department of Transportation to issue a specific permit before it could be hauled away on public roads. New York has not yet been issued such permits. Ebola can remain active on a surface for up to several hours, meaning that everything from soiled linens to syringes to errant bodily fluids can be deadly for anyone handling them.
As of yesterday, the number of cases worldwide rose to more than 7,000, with 3,300 fatalities, though the inefficacy of tracking cases means the figures may be off by a factor of up to three times, Benowitz said. Media reports of the disease becoming airborne are a myth.
"It's very important to understand that it cannot be transmitted through the air, which means that just being in the same room as someone who has Ebola is not a risk factor for getting the disease," he said. "This is something that we have been studying for decades. There have been upwards of 20 other outbreaks over the last 40 years. We understand the transmission dynamics very well."