Durango is a far-flung mountain town without a subway, much less an international airport.
But it’s one flight away from Dallas, the epicenter of Ebola in America.
Local physicians, health-care officials and hospital administrators say they’re keenly aware that even the remote possibility of an Ebola infection in La Plata County poses huge risks for which they’re studiously preparing.
“What if someone went to Urgent Care, or La Plata Family Medicine, or Animas Surgical Hospital?” said David Bruzzese, spokesman for Mercy Regional Medical Center.
Bruzzese said for weeks, Mercy’s staff has been “putting Ebola-specific emergency plans in place,” including constantly educating emergency-room staff about the most current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.
Mercy has a negative airflow room in which patients suspected of having Ebola might be isolated, and protective gear to prevent Ebola from contaminating caregivers via droplets, for instance, by an infected patient’s sneezing on a nurse or doctor.
But Bruzzese said that as Ebola cases have emerged in the U.S., Mercy has striven to keep up with each new directive from the CDC on how to treat and diagnose Ebola.
“The meetings are ongoing,” he said. “This is a rapidly evolving situation nationally. So we’re doing everything we can to stay abreast of the situation both locally and across the state so that we can respond appropriately, following the most up-to-date protocols in the event that someone in the community presents with symptoms,” he said.
Joe Fowler, epidemiologist with San Juan Basin Health Department, said the CDC has isolated two basic diagnostic criteria for identifying potential cases of Ebola:
The first step requires providers to determine whether the patient has symptoms of Ebola, which include fever, headache, muscle pain, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, unexplained bleeding or bruising.
The second step is to determine whether the patient has recently traveled to West Africa.
“If they answer yes, isolate them, then call the Colorado Department of Health and Environment for further guidance,” he said.
Ebola has been ravaging West Africa for months, killing thousands in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria.
As of Thursday, two Dallas nurses had tested positive for Ebola after treating Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man who sought care from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in late September and died last week.
The Dallas contagion has exposed the fragility of our public-health system in dealing with Ebola on the ground:
When Duncan first showed up in the emergency room with Ebola-like symptoms on Sept. 25, he was initially sent away.
Then, one of the nurses who treated Duncan got the CDC’s blessing to travel to Ohio on Oct. 10, just days before she tested positive for Ebola.
Dr. Kicki Searfus, of Mountainview TLC, said it was deeply reckless for the nurse to travel to Ohio while mildly symptomatic, saying such decisions endanger everyone. She said given the nature of modern life, with its heavy emphasis on air travel, blase attitudes toward contagion makes it likelier for Ebola to spread to places like Durango.
Searfus said the prospect of Ebola is “terrifying,” though it hadn’t yet caused her to change protocols in her office.
“This is a situation in which I’m grateful to live where I do,” she said. “But these days, people are going through a lot of airports, and people need to be a lot more aware, and ask a lot of questions. Where have you been traveling? Where have you mingled with lots of other people who have been traveling?”
In the wake of the Dallas infections, the CDC has adopted more stringent guidelines regarding the protective garb health-care providers should wear in suspected cases of Ebola.
San Juan Basin Health Department’s spokeswoman Claire Macpherson said so far, the CDC hasn’t recommended that health-care providers ask about patients’ travel to Dallas or Ohio.
Depending on what happens in Dallas, that may change, but “at this time, the only guidance from the CDC is in regard to West Africa: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea,” she said.
While local hospitals must be vigilant in following the CDC’s progressing guidelines for dealing with Ebola, Searfus cautioned the public not to overreact.
“Ebola feels like kind of a novel, foreign thing. But we’ve been through big pandemics before. In the United States, thousands and thousands of people die from flu. People forget that. Contagious disease really isn’t a new phenomenon in America,” she said.
Fowler echoed her, saying Ebola is “something we’re preparing for. But we’re not alarmed about it.”
Every year, he said, seasonal influenza kills 25,000 to 30,000 Americans.
“It’s very important that we keep this in perspective. There’s no indication that it’s spreading beyond the cases we’re already aware of. We deal with infectious diseases every day right here in Durango. Right now, we have three confirmed cases of Ebola in the USA, in a population of 360 million,” he said.