NEW YORK, N.Y. - The government's new federal Ebola response squads were getting their first test Thursday, dispatched to New York to help care for the city's first case, a doctor who had treated a patient with the disease in west Africa.
The squads — likened to public health SWAT teams — were set up to rush to any U.S. city where a new Ebola case might be identified.
Meanwhile, the government has formed a second set of teams to prepare hospitals in cities deemed most likely to see a new Ebola case, should one turn up. Three of those teams have already been sent out.
Health officials this week first shared details about the two sets of health squads.
The teams are "ready to go — boom — if we have another case of Ebola," said Dr. Jordan Tappero, one of the leaders of CDC's Ebola response effort.
The government has been criticized for its handling of the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian, came down with Ebola symptoms last month, a few days after arriving in Dallas from West Africa. He was admitted to a Dallas hospital in late September and died Oct. 8.
Duncan's illness and death created public fear as health officials had to track down and monitor scores of people he came in contact with. No one in the community has been infected, but two nurses who cared for him were. Since then, CDC officials have said they should have sent more people to Dallas when Duncan's case first surfaced — particularly infection control specialists, who could have provided better guidance to the hospital.
Last week, President Barack Obama announced a push for a faster federal reaction. "We want a rapid response team, a SWAT team essentially, from the CDC to be on the ground as quickly as possible, hopefully within 24 hours, so that they are taking the local hospital step by step though what needs to be done," he said.
The CDC has developed two sets of teams, identified by the acronyms CERT and FAST. The CERTs — for CDC Ebola Response Teams — are the squads Obama was talking about. They are to be made up of 10 to 20 people each, who can be sent to a hospital right after a new case of Ebola is lab-confirmed, or even before confirmation, if health officials believe a person is very likely to be infected. They are drawn from a list of roughly 100 CDC workers and others, scattered across the country. The 20 or so people at the top of the list are on standby, with bags packed.
Three FAST teams were assembled last week. These are smaller, preparatory teams: FAST stands for Facility Assessment and Support Teams. They're involved in checking out hospitals that have volunteered to handle Ebola cases, making sure they are ready to handle everything from the first encounter with a patient to the disposal of Ebola-infected medical waste.
The government is trying to identify up to 20 hospitals around the country that are designated Ebola referral centres. An emphasis has been on reviewing hospitals in the five cities with airports where all travellers from West Africa are now being funneled. The FAST teams have already been sent to three of them — New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. The other two cities are Atlanta and Newark. The government hopes to release a list of primary Ebola hospitals in those five cities this week, CDC officials said.
Meanwhile, federal, state or local officials have already named some hospitals. CDC officials confirmed that one is Emory University Hospital in Atlanta — which already has been treating Ebola patients. In Chicago, local health officials this week said four leading hospitals have agreed to handle Ebola patients: Rush University Medical Center, the University of Chicago Medical Center, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. New York state officials have said they have designated eight hospitals to handle patients diagnosed with Ebola: New York City's Bellevue Hospital Center, Mount Sinai Hospital, New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, Montefiore Hospital Center; North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System; Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse; University of Rochester Medical Center, and Stony Brook University Hospital on Long Island.
On Sunday, the Pentagon said it's building a 30-person medical support team that could go to help civilian hospitals deal with a future appearance of Ebola. The team is to include 20 critical care nurses, five doctors trained in infectious disease, and five trainers in infectious disease protocols. The military team has a different orientation: They'll be there to provide medical care if a hospital needs more hands. The CERT teams are not there to care for patients. They would be involved in testing, co-ordinating communications with the public, ensuring that hospital workers are properly protected, and helping to track down people an infected person was in contact with, explained Dr. John T. Brooks, a CDC official who oversees the teams.
The CDC also has teams in Ohio and Texas working on Ebola, Brooks said. They are not FAST or CERT teams. They were sent to help officials in those states to help track and prepare for potential cases related to Duncan or to a nurse who treated him and travelled to the Cleveland area.