Let me start out by admitting that Ebola scares the crap out of me. It scares me not because I think I'm at high risk of catching it, but because I live in a country where we've never had to worry about an outbreak of such a disease and there are some lessons we are going to learn the hard way.
Lesson No. 1: Americans do a bad job of washing our hands.
I just keep thinking of the approximately 265,000 illnesses and 100 deaths in the United States each year related to Escherichia coli (E-coli), which are bacteria that are found in the feces of cattle, sheep and goats and are spread by humans. Often what happens is that a worker at a packing plant comes into contact with E-coli and contaminates equipment that is used to process meat. If the meat is not cooked to an appropriate temperature, the person eating it can end up sickened by E-coli.
Lesson No. 2: Keep your dirty hands away from your eyes and mouth.
Intellectually, I know that Ebola is spread through direct contact with body fluids (blood, sweat, tears, semen, feces, etc.) and that most of us are not going to come into contact with an infected person. Experts do note, however, that the virus can survive in a dried state on hand rails, counters, door knobs, etc., for hours after contact with an infected person or for days if it is kept damp and at room temperature.
That type of non-direct contamination is how I caught whooping cough this summer. No one in my immediate family, circle of friends or co-workers had whooping cough. I did, however, take several plane trips during the time frame in which my doctor suspects I was exposed (I did not sit next to anyone who was coughing or appeared to be ill). At some point on one of my trips, I touched a microscopic germ and then rubbed my eye or touched a pretzel that I then put in my mouth. It's that easy to spread whooping cough and from what experts say, it's not that much harder to spread Ebola.
Lesson No. 3: It CAN happen here. It HAS happened here.
Oct. 12, it was announced that Nina Pham, a health care worker at Texas Presbyterian Hospital who provided care for Thomas Eric Duncan, had tested positive for Ebola. Duncan, the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States, contracted the disease while in Liberia and later died of the illness at the hospital. Pham – the first person to contract Ebola in the United States – was isolated after the initial report of a fever.
We've been told that Pham wore PPE such as an eye shield, mask, gloves, gown, etc., when providing care to Duncan. But at some point, she made contact with live virus and was infected. (A second health care worker, Amber Vinson, has contracted the virus.)
National Nurses United is calling for all hospitals to provide hazmat suits and hands-on training to protect all hospital personnel who might be exposed to a patient with Ebola.
"Nurses and other frontline hospital personnel must have the highest level of protective equipment, such as the hazmat suits [personnel at] Emery University or the CDC use while transporting patients, and hands-on training and drills for all RNs and other hospital personnel, [including] practice putting on and taking off the optimal equipment," said RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United, the largest U.S. organization of nurses.
As of Oct. 12, 2,000 RNs at more than 750 facilities in 46 states and the District of Columbia responded to a survey from NNU, which found:
- 76 percent still say their hospital has not communicated a policy regarding potential admission of patients infected by Ebola.
- 85 percent say their hospital has not provided education on Ebola with the ability for the nurses to interact and ask questions.
- 7 percent say their hospital has insufficient current supplies of eye protection (face shields or side shields with goggles) for daily use on their unit and 36 percent say there are insufficient supplies of fluid-resistant/impermeable gowns in their hospital.
- 39 percent say their hospital does not have plans to equip isolation rooms with plastic-covered mattresses and pillows and discard all linens after use.
Send an e-mail with your thoughts to [email protected].