Los Angeles County health officials told the County Board of Supervisors Tuesday that they have been training county hospitals and health workers how to prepare for the Ebola virus if cases surface in the area, and have been in touch with private health institutions about how to prepare for a possible outbreak.
"The key issue is training and practice," said Mitch Katz, director of the county’s Department of Health Services. "We are practicing everyday and we are practicing in real time because we do receive patients with fever and travel history."
Katz said the county has already put the training to use, screening seven patients with suspicious symptoms who had recently been to, or had contact with, someone who had been to west Africa - the epidemic’s ground zero. Ebola was ruled out in each case, he said.
The county is "fully prepared" to respond and "prevent spread to others," Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, interim director of the county Department of Public Health, told the board.
Gunzenhauser checked off a list of steps the county has already taken:
- It is prepared to begin testing immediately.
- It has trained hospital employees on how to rapidly identify Ebola cases.
- It has sent letters to hospital CEO’s about the issue and provided a checklist for self-readiness assessments.
- It has provided posters for providers and non-government organization that interact with individuals from west Africa.
- It has coordinated with the coroner's office.
- It has provided a script for 211 staff for questions from the public.
- It has coordinated with airports.
If a case occurs locally, Gunzenhauser said the county would activate its Incident Command System, to coordinate the responses of local agencies and the state and federal governments.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich requested the update; on Tuesday he asked for a more in-depth written report within 30 days.
"We need to be aware that Ebola can spread in Los Angeles County as it has in other places," Antonovich said. "We need to make sure our hospitals are prepared to take care of this...so they are ahead of the curve, unlike what happened in Texas," Antonovich said.
The first and so far only U.S. case of Ebola was diagnosed on Sept. 30 in Dallas, Texas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That individual was initially sent home after telling hospital workers he had traveled to west Africa.
Gunzenhauser pointed out several differences between west Africa and Los Angeles County.
In west Africa there is a shortage of doctors and residents do not seek care until they are very sick, he said.
"In Los Angeles we have over 25,000 doctors, 95 acute care hospitals and a population that readily seeks care when they are sick," said Gunzenhauser.
Antonovich called for more in-depth screening of air travelers, saying that those who are sick could be taken to a hospital for treatment straight from the airport.
On Monday, President Obama said his administration is going to develop additional protocols for screening passengers at foreign and U.S. airports.
Experts say Ebola is spread through direct contact with a victim’s blood or body fluids. The virus causes fever, headache, muscle pain, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain and hemorrhaging, and it has killed a significant number of those who have contracted it.
The CDC says there have been nearly 7,500 cases of Ebola, almost all of them in west Africa. Of those, more than 3,400 have been fatal, according to the CDC.