Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center wants its intake staff and nurses to start asking specifically about patients’ travel to western Africa, where more than 3,000 have died from the deadly Ebola virus.

With a patient hospitalized in Dallas, the first in the United States, the main emergency center for the Baton Rouge area is designating “trauma bays” to handle any patients suspected of being exposed to the Ebola virus. The changes come at the Lake and other hospitals around the state despite the remote possibility of anyone catching the virus in Louisiana.

At the state government level, health officials are making contact with colleges and universities, who have students and academics traveling to Africa, as well as groups that provide doctors, missionaries and humanitarian aid, and anyone else thought to have gone to or been in contact with people who have gone to the countries where the virus has spread.

The state health agency also recently updated its count of hospital beds that have the capability of caring for a patient who would have to be treated in isolation for infectious disease. Some hospitals in rural Louisiana do not have the equipment and rooms necessary to treat such patients and would have to send victims to larger facilities in Baton Rouge or New Orleans. The idea is to ensure that medical personnel know where the proper facilities are located and the proper procedures for handling a patient should a case occur in Louisiana.

There have been no reported cases in Louisiana. Ebola can only spread through contact with secretions, such as blood, sweat or saliva of an infected individual.

“We are about to get into flu season and some of the symptoms are the same,” said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, state health officer. “People need to know you have to be exposed to someone with Ebola, which is not here, in the country.”

On Wednesday, Gov. Bobby Jindal said Louisiana is prepared in the event a case of Ebola surfaces here. He met with state agencies to get an update on what’s being done.

Jindal said for the last several weeks the state has been working to ready Louisiana’s public health and medical infrastructure, including procedures for emergency medical workers, hospital physicians and regional emergency response coordinators.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ebola causes viral hemorrhagic fever, which can affect multiple organ systems in the body and is often accompanied by bleeding.

Early symptoms include sudden onset of fever, weakness, muscle pain, headaches and a sore throat, each of which can be easily mistaken early on for other ailments such as malaria, typhoid fever and meningitis.

Ebola is a communicable disease that hospital, emergency medical personnel and others in the health care field have protocols for handling, said Dr. Larry Hollier, chancellor of the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.

“We had that scare last week at the port,” said Hollier, referring to a ship that had been to Africa docking in New Orleans with sick crewmen. Precautions were taken as the crewmen were taken to a local hospital, he said. One of them died of malaria. “The process showed that it works,” he said.

Dr. Frank Welch, state immunization director, said infectious disease protocols are being updated based on guidance that has been coming for weeks from the CDC.

“Ten missives have gone out about Ebola to hospitals across the state about the (African) outbreak,” Welch said, the latest arriving Wednesday.

“What kind of questions to use with patients? ... What lab tests? What precautions need to be taken?”

Welch said the state health agency also has been working with emergency medical services.

Guidry said Louisiana has the medical infrastructure to contain the disease unlike in the areas of Africa where its spread.

“We have dealt with some communicable diseases here and we kept them from spreading because of our capabilities,” he said.

He said people “should not panic and think what they are seeing in Africa is what they are going to see here.”

Ken Alexander, a vice president with the Louisiana Hospital Association, which represents most of the facilities in the state, said hospitals put policies in place since the pandemic flu problem some five years ago. He said the policies are reviewed regularly.

The Louisiana Hospital Association has been working with state Office of Emergency Preparedness as part of a statewide coalition similar to that used for hurricane response, Alexander said. Another meeting is scheduled Thursday to look at what — if anything — needs to be done to revise its procedures.

“As part of our hospital’s preparedness efforts, we have already taken proactive steps to drill our protocols on this potential event, ensuring that our staff are well prepared and our hospital is equipped to meet the needs of an Ebola patient,” said Maryann Rowland, spokeswoman for Baton Rouge General Medical Center.

“Baton Rouge General and other hospitals in our region work together closely with our local and state agencies to ensure the safety and health of patients, visitors and the general public.”

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