Pandemic Preparedness: What Can Health Officials and Hospitals Do to Prevent a Potential Crisis?

By on 3:08 PM

The emergence of Ebola virus in the U.S. has sparked off a litany of concerns over the course of the last few days, and an extensive article published by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review this weekend has quoted officials as comparing an outbreak of Ebola to a “Category 5 hurricane” and “potential pandemic.”

Controversy surrounds the issue of whether flights of a casual nature should have been suspended as early as August when it was evident that the growing epidemic in West Africa was reaching an all-time high. World health officials maintain such an action would have enhanced the risk of a pandemic as transportation would have been cut off for vital services into and out of Africa for a variety of reasons. However, that’s not how infection control experts within the U.S. are viewing this important consideration.

Allowing controlled flights into and out of the countries would allow for aid workers and service personnel to travel, but these people are highly screened and transported safely versus the general population. We saw that when the first Americans—a doctor and missionary worker—were infected and became ill, they were transported to the U.S. in a highly contained environment on the airplane.

Now that we have our first case and a the possibility of others being observed (as quoted in the Tribune-Review article, “Doctors at Howard University Hospital in Washington are monitoring a patient with Ebola-like symptoms who frequently traveled to Nigeria”), what can we do in the healthcare field to mitigate further risks of creating a pandemic or nationwide epidemic?

On Wednesday last week, immediately after the first patient was admitted to the hospital in Dallas, Governor Rick Perry announced that “this case is serious,” according to The New Yorker. He went on to say, “Rest assured that our system is working as it should. Professionals on every level of the chain of command know what to do to minimize this potential risk to the people of Texas and this country.”  Then, a few minutes later, hospital leaders confessed that, in fact, “The professionals hadn’t done what they had to do.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided ongoing information, with newly developed checklists and guidance (see the end of this recent column for examples) to healthcare professionals at many levels since the start of the Ebola crisis in West Africa. However, our first failure occurred! The CDC has now ramped up its alerts and is pouring out information on a daily basis to hospitals, emergency medical service personnel, airlines and airports, etc.

The key to success in stopping a pandemic, based on my many years of experience in the infection prevention and control industry, is basic education, communication and a multi-disciplinary effort to adequately and diligently apply pandemic planning and preparedness protocols within the healthcare system from the ground up. It is up to the hospital administrators, risk managers and, most importantly, the infection prevention and control departments to ensure the message is getting out and procedures are being strictly followed by all. Infection prevention personnel should be monitoring these processes and providing the necessary support, including education, during this emerging threat.

Phenelle Segal RN CIC, President of Infection Control Consulting Services, provides infection control and prevention consulting, including assistance with pandemic preparedness planning, to hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

Phenelle Segal, RN, CIC, FAPIC

Phenelle Segal, RN, CIC, FAPIC, is the founder and president of Infection Control Consulting Services LLC (ICCS). Phenelle has more than 30 years' experience providing customized comprehensive infection control and prevention services to healthcare facilities nationwide. Her services focus on assisting hospitals, ambulatory surgery centers, dental office and oral surgery practices, doctor's offices, nursing homes and other organizations with implementing and maintaining an infection control program that: complies with The Joint Commission, AAAHC, Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) and other regulatory agencies; respond to situations of noncompliance; and improve the processes for reducing risk.