If you’re freaked out about Ebola coming to Santa Barbara County, place the virus much further down on your worry list than both lightning strikes — which killed 29 people nationwide in 2010 — and the flu, responsible for 50,000 deaths every year. But if you’re still freaked out, area health officials said, agencies across the county are readying for the unlikely possibility that the disease — which has claimed the lives of 4,500-plus people in West Africa and one in the United States — could land here.
Contracting the disease requires making direct contact with the bodily fluids of a symptomatic person, a high bar avoided by the live-in relatives of the man who died in Dallas and so far the passengers who flew alongside one of the two infected nurses, stressed Dr. Alan Sugar, an infectious disease specialist at Sansum Clinic. “People need to put everything in perspective,” he said, sighing. “The risk of getting seriously ill and dying is of a greater magnitude for influenza, auto accidents, and cigarette smoking. Why aren’t they getting panicked about all this stuff? This is the stuff that’s going to kill them.”
Still, Sansum, Cottage Hospital, and Marian Regional Medical Center — with County Public Health serving as the lead agency — all have plans in place should someone test positive here. County Health Officer Dr. Charity Thoman, who said her department assembled a five-person, all-volunteer “Ebola team” months ago, used a hypothetical scenario of a man who just returned from Liberia and was vomiting at a Santa Barbara–area bus stop to describe how first responders and medical facilities would handle the situation.
Fire and ambulance services would arrive first, Dr. Thoman said, adding that Emergency Medical Services personnel are now trained to screen patients for their travel history. They would then call a Public Health official, who could “pull the trigger” for the Ebola team to intervene. A perimeter would be created around the bus stop — possibly with help from law enforcement — and, if the patient were stable enough to wait the 90 minutes it would take, the ambulance would be outfitted with a protective plastic lining before transporting the patient to an area hospital, which would likewise need an hour’s notice to prepare an isolation unit. At that point, Thoman continued, team members would begin contacting people who may have interacted with the man and would quarantine those people for 28 days. The hospital, she said, would work at replacing the victim’s fluids, as a typical Ebola patient produces up to 12 liters of diarrhea per day.
The amount of soiled clothes and sheets presents a “huge issue,” Thoman said, as contaminated medical gear can’t be incinerated in California and would have to be burned in a different state. Public Health has a limited supply of protective body suits and hoods for medical staff — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this week recommended full-body coverage, in the wake of the two Dallas nurses getting infected — but acquiring more gear could prove difficult, Thoman said, as the equipment is not only back-ordered but also not budgeted.
Thoman — and Sugar, too — didn’t mince words in describing how the Ebola scare in America has highlighted problems with the country’s public health system. They pointed to slashed budgets in the wake of the recession that have weakened the system’s overall infrastructure. Thoman singled out the CDC, saying the organization has “fumbled it over and over” with Ebola, a “problematic” occurrence given the overall system’s reliance on area public health departments being responsible for their own contingency plans.
Thoman and her colleagues have been working closely with health officials at UCSB, Santa Barbara City College, and Westmont, should any members of those campus communities contract the virus; none of the colleges reported having students or staff who have traveled to the affected countries since the outbreak. Tracy Lincoln, operations manager for the Santa Barbara Airport, said there isn’t a “big elevated level of concern” among passengers, airlines, or security staff but that the airport is “getting its checklist together.”
While stressing the county’s preparedness, Thoman — like County Fire Chief Michael Dyer, who noted the flu and enterovirus, which has been afflicting children across the country, and Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Pat McElroy, who painted hepatitis C and tuberculosis as “far more dangerous for us on a daily basis” — placed more stress on easing people’s panic. “People should not be worried,” she said. “Don’t worry about Ebola — get a flu shot. If there was a real Ebola situation here, trust me, everyone would know.”