Malloy orders Ebola drills at all hospitals in Connecticut

Hartford — Hospitals statewide have been directed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to conduct Ebola preparedness drills within the next seven days and preferably within the next 48 hours, and a Unified Command Team of state officials has been formed to coordinate resources and personnel to handle any possible Ebola cases in the state and serve as the single point of contact with the public.

The team will be headed by Dr. Jewel Mullen, the public health commissioner, and would include representatives of the governor’s office, the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, the Department of Education, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the Department of Administrative Services and the Department of Correction.

Malloy announced the measures during a news conference Thursday at the state Armory amid reports that Yale-New Haven Hospital had placed a patient with possible Ebola symptoms in isolation. The patient, a doctoral student at Yale University who had recently traveled to West Africa for research, went to the hospital with symptoms late Wednesday. Late Thursday afternoon, the state health department announced that results of blood tests conducted at the Massachusetts State Public Health laboratory showed the student did not have the deadly virus. Results of confirmation tests from the Centers for Disease Control are expected as early as today, the health department said.

The patient will remain under a state-imposed isolation order pending the results of the CDC tests.

Mullen had also issued a quarantine order for the patient and others the student traveled with, and state and local health officials had been working to retrace the patient’s movements since he returned to the United States, Malloy said. Malloy last week issued an order declaring a public health emergency that gave the public health commissioner the authority to quarantine or isolate anyone believed to have been exposed to Ebola or who is infected with the virus.

Mullen said that all hospitals in the state have completed and returned Ebola preparedness checklists her office had asked for earlier this month.

She emphasized that while Ebola is a deadly disease that has killed more than half of the people infected in West Africa, “it is still not easy to catch.

“It is not spread by air or water or casual contact,” she said. “It’s spread by contact with blood or other bodily fluids or needles or dead bodies or infected animals.”

People who experience the early symptoms of Ebola, including headache, nausea, diarrhea and fever, which are common to many illnesses, should seek medical care if they have also traveled to West Africa recently or been in close contact with someone who has, Malloy said.

“We want to try to tamp down potential hysteria,” he said. He assured residents that if an Ebola case is confirmed in Connecticut, the state is prepared. Hospitals have been directed to isolate any suspected Ebola cases until a definite diagnosis can be made.

Malloy said that as a further precaution, he has directed the state Department of Transportation to develop secondary screening procedures for international flights into Bradley Airport that would be activated if there is spike in cases in this country. Passengers are currently being screened at five airports that receive more than 90 percent of the passengers traveling from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — the three West African nations that are the center of the epidemic — to this country.

Both of southeastern Connecticut’s two hospitals said Thursday that Ebola preparedness measures they have been engaged in for weeks were ramped up over the last several days in response to the death of a patient in Dallas and the subsequent infections of two nurses who cared for him.

“We’ve gone on heightened alert,” said Rocco Orlando, chief medical officer for Hartford HealthCare, the hospital network that includes The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich.

In addition to increased training for hospital staff and emergency responders in proper use of protective clothing, Hartford HealthCare has also decided that any suspected Ebola patient who goes to any hospital in the network would be taken to Hartford Hospital, Orlando said.

“We would centralize care at Hartford Hospital,” he said. “We have a self-contained unit that’s like a hospital within a hospital.”

The area, he said, is similar to containment units at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta and Nebraska Medical Center, where Ebola patients who contracted the disease in Africa are being treated. During the news conference, Mullen said that while there were mistakes made at the Dallas hospital that treated the Ebola patients, these two hospitals serve as models of how Ebola can be treated successfully.

Orlando said the drills Malloy has directed hospitals to conduct have already been done at Backus and other hospitals in the network. Hartford HealthCare, he added, a month ago instituted full-body protective gear in its Ebola care protocols for staff, “in excess of what the CDC’s requirements were.”

“We’ve already done two table-top exercises and done exercises with mock patients during the past week to 10 days,” he said.

Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London and its affiliate, Westerly Hospital, have also increased protective gear protocols to full-body suits, said Mike O’Farrell, L+M spokesman. The hospital had previously been following CDC protocols that left neck and collar areas exposed.

“We have an adequate supply and there are more on the way,” O’Farrell said of the full-body suits.

“We’re screening people for travel history at all points of entry, including pre-admission screening calls,” he said. Signs have also been posted in the emergency departments at L+M and Westerly telling patients to notify hospital staff immediately if they have any of the symptoms common to Ebola and other illnesses and have traveled in the last 21 days to Liberia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Nigeria or Guinea, or have been in contact with anyone who has.

While there have already been training and drills at the hospitals, he said, there will be additional drills in the next few days with mock patients.

Wednesday morning, state health officials held a conference call with local public health directors to talk about quarantine and isolation protocols as well as the procedure that would be used to trace anyone who had contact with an Ebola patient, said Patrick McCormack, director of the Uncas Health District in Norwich.

He said while the state would issue any quarantine and isolation orders, the local agencies would be responsible for enforcement. The state health agency told local directors it would ensure that they have access to the information they would need to identify and contact the person’s family, friends and others who may have been exposed. Uncas Health District serves Norwich, Montville, Bozrah, Sprague, Griswold, Lisbon, Salem and Voluntown.

Baker Salisbury, director of the Ledge Light Health District, said that under a quarantine order, an individual who has been exposed to the virus “but is not necessarily sick” would be restricted to home or another location. Local health agencies would be responsible for determining the place and circumstances of the quarantine, as well as making arrangements for their care and feeding, he said. Ledge Light provides public health services for Groton, New London, Ledyard, Waterford and East Lyme.

Malloy urged residents with concerns about Ebola to contact United Way 211. Residents can obtain information by calling 2-1-1 or by visiting: www.211ct.org.

j.benson@theday.com

Twitter: @BensonJudy 

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