ATLANTA – Georgia’s response to the Ebola epidemic last year left the state with a stronger network of hospitals, practitioners and other medical infrastructure that will serve as preparation for future disasters, bioterrorism or disease outbreaks, experts say.
State agencies tracked 1,431 people who were somehow exposed to Ebola and kept up with each through the 21-day incubation period. Most had returned from African countries experiencing essentially uncontrolled spreading of the deadly virus, as volunteers, soldiers or doctors.
“If you haven’t heard much in the news, it’s because Georgia did a pretty good job of managing these patients,” said Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, commissioner of public health.
Georgia’s Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was designated one of five U.S. airports qualified to accept flights from infected countries. Those passengers were met at customs, questioned and instructed to make regular contact through their smartphones to a state database that monitored them for possible fever or other symptoms. Patients who didn’t remember were forcefully reminded to comply.
Of that group, 39 experienced some medical circumstance requiring treatment, such as stroke, heart attack or child birth. That required special considerations for transporting them or their blood samples, protection of the doctors treating them and procedures in the hospitals to ensure any toxic germs remained isolated.
However, none got sick, and there was no secondary transmission of the disease, Fitzgerald told colleagues Wednesday attending the Health Connect South conference.
“We can see from what happened in other parts of the United States that this is not the kind of thing that you just say, ‘We’ll do what we read in the textbook.’ It required deep expertise,” said Dr. Bruce Ribner, director of the Serious Communicable Diseases Unit at Emory University. “…This state is lightyears ahead of the other states in the country.”
Most state experts credit Ribner. For 13 years leading up to the outbreak, he had been developing protocols in preparation for a possible epidemic. It’s why the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chose Georgia to treat the Americans with the most critical Ebola infections.
Ribner credits Gov. Nathan Deal and state officials who demanded cooperation from hospitals, ambulance services and others who normally are competitors and for establishing a single phone number both patients and medical professionals could call for informed advice.
When only one company in the state was willing to transport exposed blood, Deal ordered troopers to do it.
Those networks spread information, and they fostered cooperation. For instance, some hospitals in each region were designated treatment specialists and others diagnostic specialists in coping with those 1,400 patients. Whenever a hospital was overwhelmed, others in the network provided relief, according to Dr. Patrick O’Neal, director of health protection in the Georgia Department of Health.
That structure, built on plans for hurricanes and past disasters, formed the blueprint for the state’s preparations required by the Department of Homeland Security. It is the only state to complete a federally approved plan, and its plan is now serving as the model for other states, he said.
Having that experience strengthens Georgia’s health system in many ways, according to Dr. Doug Patten, chief medical officers for the Georgia Hospital Association.
“Ebola is just one thing,” he said. “We’ve got to use this to be ready for the next thing.”
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