Concerns about Ebola and Enterovirus D68 have the entire nation asking questions about the steps health care institutions take to protect their communities from infectious diseases. Registered nurse Pam Vaccaro, who is certified by the Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology, spearheads those efforts at North Oaks. It’s a charge she takes seriously, and it’s a priority 365 days a year, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, she said.

“Every day, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) provides updated information on all infectious diseases, from more common conditions like West Nile Virus and the flu, to those more rare, like Ebola or anthrax,” Vaccaro said. “I use that information, and guidance from Dr. Stacy Newman, North Oaks’ infectious disease specialist, to educate our staff and ensure that our policies are up-to-date so that we are prepared to handle any situation involving any infectious disease.”

Arming the community with infection prevention information they need also is an important responsibility of North Oaks Health System. Vaccaro recently worked with North Oaks health educators to provide area day care centers with information about Enterovius D68, a condition that primarily affects young children. She also has worked with Southeastern Louisiana University to share information about Ebola, and help them adapt their infectious disease policies for the collegiate setting. Meanwhile this summer, Newman spoke to local media about prevention of vibrio vulnificus, or the “flesh-eating bacteria,” plaguing the Gulf Coast’s beaches.

“I’ve been accused of employing an ‘overabundance of caution’ in my role,” Vaccaro said. “But it’s always easier to prevent an infection than to ‘chase the horse after it’s left the barn.’ ”

While prevention is key, the reality is that people who come to the hospital or a physician’s clinic are often contagious, she said. The goal then becomes twofold: caring for the patient and protecting others from getting sick.

“We have very specific policies that direct how to provide patients diagnosed with or suspected of having infectious conditions all the medical care they need in a manner that is respectful, preserves their dignity and protects other patients, visitors and hospital staff,” Vaccaro said. Protective measures may include putting the patient in a private room or isolation room with his own bathroom; requiring staff to wear special masks and gowns to help prevent the spread of infection; and using special disinfection protocols for linens, equipment and dishes used in the care of the patient.

Communication is vital to the success of an infection prevention and control program, she said. At North Oaks, safety huddles are conducted every day to share information about special precautions that may be needed.

“Just today, I worked with our ER staff to confirm that our electronic health record quickly identifies any patient who reports they have traveled to or been in contact with someone who has been to Africa in the past 21 days,” Vaccaro said. “That’s information our medical team absolutely must have.” The process works well; the infection rate at North Oaks is below both state and national levels.

Vaccaro also shares information about infectious diseases with other area hospitals and with local, state and national organizations. This information helps physicians called epidemiologists study how common a disease is and identify patterns in how disease spreads in human populations. Special hotlines are available 24/7 to make it easy to get information to the people who need it, she said.

“Get your flu shot!” she said. “The flu killed 10,000 people last year in the U.S. — more than the number of people who at present have died from Ebola worldwide. It’s the best way to protect yourself against the flu; or if you do become ill, lessen the severity and length of time you are ill.”

Flu shots that are latex- and preservative-free, and protect against the four most common strains of the flu, including H1N1, are available at select North Oaks clinic locations. North Oaks also will be making masks available at the main entrances to its facilities for any visitors who are concerned about flu or other airborne illnesses.

“At the end of every day, I know I’ve made my community, and my hospital, a safer place to be. That’s what it’s all about — I love my job,” Vaccaro said.