By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON -- While a Boston Ebola case is unlikely, officials say, everyone from medical emergency workers on city streets and in the Port of Boston to nurses and doctors in the hospitals are prepared for that potentiality.
The Boston Public Health Commission held a press briefing on the disease that is ravaging parts of West Africa to quell what they described as misconceptions and answer questions officials say they have received.
"The recent tragic outbreak of Ebola virus is a very frightening event," said Dr. David Coleman, chairman of medicine at Boston Medical Center.
The virus has killed a total of 1,225 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierre Leone as well as four people in Nigeria, and many more people have confirmed or suspected cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
There are no suspected cases in Boston, and earlier suspected cases in the city turned out to be "nothing close to Ebola," said BPHC Infective Disease Bureau Director Dr. Anita Barry.
"There's already a great structure in place to be able to be aware of cases and respond," said Barry. She said, "It is very unlikely that we will have a case in Boston."
Officials said all of Boston's hospitals are equipped to handle a patient suspected of contracting Ebola.
Guidance has gone out to community organizations and universities, and hospital staff are questioning ill patients about their travels. The city is coordinating with the Massachusetts Port Authority on how to handle sick people who might arrive via ship or airplane.
"The coordination among public health, hospitals and public safety has been a national model for a very long time, and these strong relationships will serve us well if a case of Ebola virus disease is discovered in the city," said BPHC Executive Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer. The emergency response to the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013 was widely praised and credited for the survival of many of those severely injured.
Barry said that as soon as a suspected case is reported, health officials would work to trace back that person's travels and interactions. After a case is confirmed, health officials would immediately alert the public while maintaining the privacy of the patient, Ferrer said.
Massachusetts General Hospital Emergency Preparedness Chief Dr. Paul Biddinger said the hospital, which is owned by Partners HealthCare, is collaborating on response protocols with its smaller affiliate hospitals.
Biddinger told the News Service that if a person shows up with a suspected case of Ebola, hospital staff would put the patient in a "special isolation room," doctors and nurses would don protective equipment, and health authorities would be contacted. The hospital would send a specimen collected from the patient to the CDC for testing, which Biddinger said generally takes about two to three days.
Saying "there may be some misinformation that often circulates," Barry clarified the disease is only spread through contact with bodily fluids of someone infected with the disease, and infected people are only contagious when they are exhibiting symptoms, which include fever, pains and vomiting.
Boston Emergency Medical Services Chief James Hooley said emergency medical technicians already follow protocols to protect them from contracting HIV, hepatitis, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, and the EMTs are well practiced in protecting themselves.