Utah on guard for Ebola

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Two Utahns are being monitored for Ebola by the Utah Department of Health, and the state has been gearing up in case symptoms start showing.

These individuals have not shown signs of the disease yet, but since they traveled to West Africa within the past 21 days, the UDOH is erring on the side of caution by requiring them to monitor themselves for symptoms.

Authorities are not confirming the location of the two. The Utah County Health Department public information officer, Lance Madigan, explained why.

This image from the Centers for Disease Control shows the Ebola virus. Two people in Utah are being monitored for signs they may have carried the virus from Africa. (Associated Press)
This image from the Centers for Disease Control shows the Ebola virus. Two people in Utah are being monitored for signs they may have carried the virus from Africa. (Associated Press)

“We are not saying or confirming whether there are individuals being monitored in Utah County right now,” he said, “for the simple reason that there is a lot of stigma and hysteria around the disease.”

If anybody did start showing symptoms of Ebola, however, Utah health departments—local and state—are prepared to handle it.

But neither Utah nor U.S. airports are the first line of defense against an Ebola outbreak. The health teams in countries with outbreaks are in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, receiving CDC support to assist them. These frontline healthcare workers do exit screenings at airports to prevent sick travelers, or travelers exposed to Ebola, from boarding a plane.

Flights from these countries to the U.S. are then routed to one of five major U.S. airports. On the ground, CDC staff screen the health of 94% of these travelers. Staff members take the travelers’ temperature, look for signs of Ebola, ask if they’ve had contact with Ebola patients and collect the travelers’ contact information.

The CDC notifies the Utah Department of Health if one of these screened travelers is bound for Utah, and UDOH then notifies that person’s local health department.

Utah’s active monitoring

Once the individual lands in Utah, the state and local health departments start direct active monitoring.

UDOH’s public information officer Tom Hudachko explains: “Essentially, it’s a system where we know about anyone coming to Utah from one of those countries,” he said. “We’re in daily contact with them during the 21-day incubation period.”

Following the CDC guidelines for active monitoring, the individuals have a number they have to call by a certain time each day to report their temperature, which they take twice a day. Since fever is often the first alert, this allows a rapid healthcare response.

Although it is possible in theory that someone with Ebola might fly under the radar, Utah County’s Madigan said it probably would not happen.

“We’re such a high monitor state, it’s very unlikely we’re going to have anyone slip into the country or fall through the cracks,” he said. “The CDC is on very high alert. And they’re working with state and local health authorities to identify those potential cases. That’s one of the things that is, I hate to say, nice about Ebola—you can’t pass the disease if you’re not showing symptoms.”

If a monitored person did show signs of illness, he or she would be transported to a hospital by an emergency medical services team, which Hudachko described.

“We have a specific EMS strike team … highly trained and highly skilled to deal with an Ebola case,” he said. “They’ve done exercises and done drills … they’re all prepared.”

Utah 911 dispatchers and hospital emergency room staff are also trained in case someone shows Ebola symptoms.

Janet Frank, spokesperson for Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, described what this triage step looks like: “If someone comes in to the Emergency Department with certain symptoms, one of the first questions will be, ‘Have you traveled outside the U.S. in the last 30 days?’”

If the answer is yes, the hospital closely monitors and potentially isolates the individual. Next, the hospital conducts a blood test, either in house or in the state lab. Eventually, the CDC confirms the test. Madigan explained the treatment that follows.

“There are several experimental treatments out there right now,” he said, “but what we’ve got is supportive care, meaning we try to treat the person’s symptoms, make them comfortable so their body can fight the virus the best it can.”

Although the chances that someone in Utah or Utah Valley would get Ebola are slim, all health authorities agree that does not mean they should not prepare, Hudachko said.

“There’s a lot of coordination going on right now. A lot of it is behind the scenes.”

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