DHMC prepares for Ebola

by Noah Goldstein | 10/28/14 5:12pm

Ebola preparedness programs are well underway at the College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Last week, DHMC announced that it would serve as the state’s go-to treatment center if any cases occurred, and Dartmouth launched an Ebola preparedness website that includes a message from Provost Carolyn Dever and executive vice president Rick Mills.

A task force consisting of emergency planning staff will work on campus preparedness, environmental health and safety director Maureen O’Leary wrote in an email. The group’s weekly meetings began over the summer, said Dick’s House co-director Jack Turco.

The first case in the current Ebola outbreak was reported in March, with the disease spreading rapidly in West Africa through August and September.

The meetings aim to ensure that students, faculty and employees going to West Africa will be aware of the dangers, and that the College will be prepared if someone comes to campus from a high-risk area.

Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are countries with widespread transmission of the disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that Nigeria, Spain and the U.S. have travel-associated cases and localized transmission.

Turco said he and his colleagues have discussed how Dartmouth would respond if there were a case recognized on campus.

“That’s not something that Dick’s House, or even the College can do by itself,” Turco said.

Dartmouth has worked with DHMC, the New Hampshire Division of Public Health Services and, through them, the CDC.

Turco said he hopes to create plans not just for Dartmouth, but also for Hanover and DHMC.

Under current College policy, anyone traveling to Ebola-affected countries must obtain a waiver through the Provost’s office, and anyone at risk to be a carrier of the disease must be evaluated at DHMC’s emergency room.

Another important factor in Ebola preparedness is the ability to identify potential carriers of Ebola, as the disease’s incubation period can be up to 21 days.

Once someone has been found to have visited an Ebola-affected country within the last month, Dick’s House will learn the details of the trip and coordinate with the state health department. The state will then determine what sort of risk the person is in and figure out if he or she was directly exposed.

Symptoms of the disease include fever, diarrhea, vomiting, aches and pains, bruises and a lack of appetite. The death rate is around 50 percent, with nearly 5,000 of the 10,141 confirmed cases ending in death to date.

Turco noted that these policies will be most effective during times of large student influx, like after winter break. Then, Dartmouth must try to track who visits the three affected countries and which students are from them.

Turco said DHMC must also work with the medical professionals working on the front lines of fighting the disease overseas, who are at the highest risk of contracting Ebola. Some medical centers are starting to ask these professionals to stay overseas for the entire 21-day incubation period rather than return immediately.

The disease spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids.

DHMC infectious disease doctor Elizabeth Talbot will travel to Liberia within the week to train doctors how to block the virus, the Associated Press reported.

Turco acknowledged that while the public may see the policies as an overreaction, the situation is constantly evolving and Ebola could come to the area. At the same time, Turco said he does not want people to be profiled because they come from Africa.

Government professor Brendan Nyhan said that while Ebola is a large global risk, people spend too much time talking about the threat inside the U.S. rather than the risk in West Africa and other areas. But he acknowledged that there is no harm in being prepared.

Nyhan said that experts within the country are confident that an outbreak will not occur, as the U.S. has a relatively good public health system, but he added that Ebola could be a large threat to countries with weaker health care systems.

“Ebola is new and it is scary — those factors make it get more attention than routine threats — but we run the risk of losing sight of not having a balanced view of the risks we face,” Nyhan said.

Nine cases of Ebola have been or are being treated in the U.S., with one death.New York, Atlanta and Dallas have all seen cases.

Correction appended (Oct. 29, 2014):

Nine cases of Ebola have been or are being treated in the U.S., not four as the article initially stated. The article has been revised to reflect this correction.