AP: US Health Care System Would Be Overwhelmed By An Ebola Outbreak

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The U.S. health care system isn’t adequately prepared to deal with the possibility of a full-blown Ebola outbreak in this country, according to an Associated Press investigation.

Emergency care in the U.S. is already overextended by normal, day-to-day demands, according to health experts, and hospitals across the country would soon be overwhelmed by an outbreak of any kind, Ebola or not. But with extensive care and isolation required for Ebola patients, many hospitals don’t have the resources they’d need to handle many patients or the training to keep their staff safe.

The American College of Emergency Physicians rated U.S. emergency care as a D-plus earlier this year, the AP reports, warning that it’s in “near-crisis” and overwhelmed by normal demands. Large, specialized hospital centers are likely to have training and staff to handle Ebola patients — but only a few at a time.

In a survey this summer by health care research group Black Book Rankings, nearly all hospitals reported that they couldn’t quarantine large numbers of people potentially exposed to Ebola. Almost 75 percent of ER physicians and 80 percent of infection specialist reported that their facilities aren’t prepared to deal with Ebola patients.

Small hospitals, on the other hand, have less funding, fewer staff and fewer resources to fight Ebola and other infectious diseases to begin with.

“Even though there have been only a couple cases, many health systems are already overwhelmed,” Dr. Kenrad Nelson, a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health professor, told the AP. Ebola’s not alone — if a major flu outbreak hit the U.S., Nelson added, “it would be really tough.”

In a potential Ebola outbreak, however, ERs could be even more adversely affected. Dr. Amesh Adalja, a member of the Public Health Committee of the Infectious Disease Society of America, told the AP that with an Ebola outbreak, “they’re not just getting a surge of patients, they’re getting a surge of patients with special needs.”

And that’s just considering theoretical patients who actually do have Ebola. Public concerns about the unfamiliar disease could create even more demand for health care.

“We’re really going to have to step up our game if we are going to deal with hemorrhagic fevers in this country,” said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University professor. “It would have to be only a mediocre outbreak…the hospitals will be flooded with the ‘worried-well.’ People with influenza or other infections that are not Ebola could jam up the public health system.”

Experts even said that some health professionals might not want to be involved in Ebola care, making already short emergency staff an even bigger problem. The Black Book Rankings survey found that 14 percent of isolation care doctors and nurses said they’d call in sick if they had to care for an Ebola patient; one in four critical care and emergency staff would as well. The percentage of other staff in those units that would stay clear of Ebola patients is even higher. (RELATED: California Nurses’ Union Wants Extra Ebola Coverage) 

“I think that’s a very valid concern,” said Dr. Melinda Moore, a scientist at Pardee RAND graduate school and former global health expert for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It’s been described in literature and studies.”

And Adalja added that many medical staffers “are not confident in the infection control procedures at their hospital.” It’s not surprising, as the only cases of Ebola transmission on U.S. soil were the two Dallas nurses caring for their patient, Thomas Duncan.

The question of Ebola preparedness — and hospital-acquired infections — is far from new. Hospitals have been struggling with patients catching antibiotic-resistant infections while in hospital care for years. But while American health care professionals can handle the medicine of treating Ebola patients — no Americans treated in the U.S. have died of the disease so far — things are likely to get more complicated if there are ever more than a few patients at one time.

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Sarah Hurtubise