Fallon Ambulance employees demonstrate Ebola protocol on a dummy.

Is Massachusetts Prepared For Ebola?

October 16, 2014

When it comes to Ebola, Gov. Deval Patrick has been striking a reassuring note.

“There is not a cause for alarm,” Patrick said at a press conference earlier this week. “We are coordinating well."

Patrick’s confidence is par for the course. For the past few weeks, the mantra from President Barack Obama and a slew of top public-health officials has been consistent: The United States is ready for Ebola.

Yet recent events have called that confidence into question. Recently, for example, potential cases in Braintree and at Logan Airport prompted a somewhat chaotic response. And in Dallas, two nurses who cared for Thomas Eric Duncan — who was the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the United States, and later died of the disease — have become infected themselves.

And while Governor Patrick may not be feeling anxious, some local healthcare workers are.

“I don’t think nurses feel at all adequately prepared for this,” said Julie Pinkham, the executive director of the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

As nurses prepare for the possibility of treating patients who, in fact, have Ebola, Pinkham says, they’re getting troublingly mixed messages from their employers.

“There’s no universal way of dealing with this in the hospitals, not only for Massachusetts but across country,” she said. “So we’ll hear one nurse saying this is how their hospital is dealing with it, or their clinic — and then we’ll hear another nurse say, ‘Well, we’re not doing that at all! We’re doing something else.’ Which I think only heightens the anxiety.”

And at some area hospitals, Pinkham claims, the protocol that’s currently in place seems woefully inadequate.

“So one of the community hospitals set up cart, if you will, with the equipment for when a suspected Ebola patient comes in,” Pinkham said. “This is the equipment you’ll utilize. Now, this is to be the gown that you’ll wear."

At this point, Pinkham holds up a flimsy blue hospital gown that features several large openings.

“I think most people who’ve been watching the news, and seen any reference to a hazmat suit, know that this is not a hazmat suit,” she said.

In other quarters, though, there’s more anxiety than optimism when it comes to handling an actual Ebola case. At Fallon Ambulance in Quincy, they’ve developed a detailed protocol for responding to any call that involves a likely Ebola patient.

“I think if a case came in, we’d be able to handle the situation,” said Kevin Mont, Fallon’s director of EMS operations and emergency preparedness.

Mont and his colleagues have been discussing Ebola’s possible arrival for months. As a result, he says, there’s now a regimen in place that should keep EMTs and paramedics safe if they transport a patient who’s showing Ebola-like symptoms and is considered high-risk.

“Once something triggers that says this is a suspected case, they’re gonna call out what they call a 'code travel.'" That puts a whole bunch of things in motion,” he said.

“We’d start to enshroud the ambulance with six millimeter plastic tarps, basically,” Mont continued. “There’s a series of tarps that go over and cover the roof, the ceilings, the walls, and it really acts as like a bathtub,” — one that would trap and contain infectious bodily fluids for future disposal.

The stretcher would be covered, too, Mont says — and a supervisor would watch staff put on and take off all hazmat gear. What’s more, at least six employees will respond to any likely Ebola call.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the Boston area will never have to deal with an actual case of Ebola. But if it does, Fallon Ambulance believes it’s prepared for the worst.

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