Long Island health officials are training first responders how to handle infectious disease amid growing concern over Ebola, the deadly virus that has claimed thousands of lives in Africa and a Liberian man who recently arrived in Texas.
While officials at major hospitals such as Nassau University Medical Center, Stony Brook University Hospital and the North Shore-LIJ Health System expressed confidence in their ability to contain the disease if it enters its doors, it’s the health of first responders that has become a priority since they may be the first to come in contact with such patients, if any arrive on LI.
“These are professionals that deal with the patients with infectious diseases every day,” Dr. Victor Politi, president and CEO of NUMC, said of first responders.
Firefighters and police officers are hardwired to react quickly to emergency situations. But, when it comes to such highly contagious diseases as Ebola, they said, it’s important for these men and women to exercise caution and make sure they’re outfitted with the proper protective equipment, especially masks and gloves, before coming into contact with a potentially infected patient, officials added.
Politi said that after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks there was heightened concern regarding infectious diseases, recalling how first responders were trained in hazmat awareness.
“A lot of the training has not been continued,” he said, adding that there’s a whole new generation of police officers and firefighters that need to be trained. He said it’s time for a refresher course.
NUMC has scheduled two courses later this month—Oct. 16 and Oct. 20—for all emergency providers in the county. Politi said the hospital sent an email blast to first responders across the county, and all are invited to attend. A course held earlier this month attracted 225 people, he said.
The Suffolk County Department of Health has scheduled a course for emergency responders and health care professionals on Oct. 15. That program is by invite only.
The courses will include a lecture on the different types of infectious diseases and what emergency workers can do to protect themselves, including making sure their vehicles are equipped with the proper protective gear.
Awareness is especially important, given the recent developments in Dallas. Officials said Wednesday that a sergeant from the Dallas County Sheriff’s office is being monitored for exposure to Ebola after he had entered the apartment of Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who died after eight days of treatment at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas.
Politi said the hospital’s training and awareness campaign is also partly in reaction to a couple of cases over the last month, in which two patients were brought to NUMC with a suspected contagious disease. After testing, it turned out they had been infected with Malaria. Both patients had recently traveled from Africa; one had arrived from Nigeria—which has been largely successful in preventing the virus from spreading. Politi couldn’t immediately recall which country the other patient had come from.
Meanwhile, as a precaution, federal agencies this week will begin screening people from Ebola-affected nations (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone) at five US airports, including John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Both nationally and locally, health workers are on heightened alert amid the outbreak, which ranks as the deadliest Ebola outbreak yet. The United States’ health care system is well-equipped to contain the disease, officials have said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ebola is contagious only through physical contact or in direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids (urine, feces, saliva, semen). It is not an airborne virus.
So far, the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO) have counted 3,857 confirmed deaths in three African nations. It is widely believed that there are many more Ebola-related deaths that haven’t been reported to authorities.