Two simple questions will be the first line of defense if a suspected case of Ebola is someday found in New Orleans: Have you been to West Africa in the last 21 days and do you have flu-like symptoms?
Those questions would be key to identifying the virus, and isolation and additional precautions would ensure it was contained, health officials and doctors said Wednesday.
Those policies have been outlined in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that has been issued as the virus has spread through West Africa. It was only a matter of time before it would show up in America, officials said, but those policies — and the resources available to U.S. hospitals — are a bulwark against a similar outbreak here.
“All these kinds of things, the guidelines have been out for months,” said Dr. Susan McLellan, a professor at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine who recently returned from a trip to West Africa, where she was treating victims of the current outbreak. “It was inevitable that someone was going to come to the United States and get sick while they were here.”
Federal health officials on Tuesday confirmed the first case of Ebola initially diagnosed in the U.S., a patient who recently traveled from Liberia to Dallas.
Although health professionals urged caution, particularly because of the disease’s high mortality rate, they stressed that the virus would require relatively little effort to contain.
Ebola looms large in the public imagination, conjuring up images of doctors in hazmat suits making their way into carefully sealed and secured treatment units in specialized facilities, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
But hospitals in Louisiana are looking at far less dramatic options that can be fairly easily implemented in any hospital. Ebola can be spread only through contact with bodily fluids such as blood, vomit and saliva, making it far more difficult to transmit than airborne diseases.
At the Interim LSU Hospital in New Orleans, a hypothetical patient who has traveled to West Africa and has the symptoms of Ebola — which can include fever, muscle aches, headaches and a sore throat — would be immediately placed in a respiratory isolation room while tests are performed, said Peter DeBlieux, interim chief medical officer and director of emergency medical services at the hospital.
Those rooms are designed to prevent air from the room from leaving, though he said even that would be out of an overabundance of caution and would be necessary only if procedures had to be performed that could lead to bodily fluids in the air.
“If someone were to cough, spit, sneeze, that would not make it outside the room,” he said.
Those treating the patient would wear more protective gear than normal — face masks, gloves, gowns and covering for shoes and hair — but not the full-body suits many imagine.
In fact, more extensive protective equipment can add to the danger of Ebola because it is bulky and uncomfortable, potentially leading to fatigue or mistakes by medical personnel, McLellan said.
“You can actually put both yourself and your patient in more danger by overexuberance” when it comes to protection, she said.
Ebola has raced through West Africa, killing more than 3,000 people including medical professionals. But its rapid spread has more to do with conditions there than with the disease itself, said McLellan, who recommended identical measures to those being planned by the LSU hospital.
Relatively minor protection can be enough to prevent the disease from spreading to those who are treating a patient, McLellan said.
The problem faced by many of the communities being ravaged by the disease in Africa is a lack of resources, including disposable gloves and running water.
“A simple lack of copious running water and lots of disposable materials that one can change in and out of while taking care of patients, that’s an unbelievable difference people don’t realize,” McLellan said.
Gov. Bobby Jindal said Wednesday that the state is prepared for Ebola, and he met with state agencies to learn about the steps being taken.
The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness also reached out to local agencies Wednesday, spokesman Michael Steele said.
“We coordinate all the activity to make sure everyone’s sharing the same information, and if there’s any resources that are needed we’re there to provide,” Steele said.
The city’s Health Department has filled a similar role, coordinating communications with hospitals. In addition, the agency would be involved in any investigation that stemmed from a confirmed case of Ebola, Health Director Charlotte Parent said.
“It would involve confirming the person does have the virus and taking histories with them about where they had been and who they had been in contact with,” she said.
A false alarm last month, in which several crewmembers fell sick on a ship arriving in New Orleans, provided an opportunity for some of the city’s plans to be put into effect, she said. While those sailors were found to have malaria, the experience allowed the department to run through its procedures and learn that more communication was needed in future incidents, she said.
“I do think that the incident we had a couple weeks ago let us stop and look at our plans and make sure we had what we needed in place,” Parent said. “We should be prepared for anything that affects our citizens.”
McLellan said there is little cause for the average person to fear Ebola and that with proper precautions it can be prevented from spreading. And, she said, there are other health concerns that far outweigh the threat from Ebola in the United States.
“If you are worried about dying a horrible death, buckle your seat belt, stop smoking, wear a helmet on your bicycle and take all the guns out of your house,” McLellan said. “Then you can worry about Ebola.”
Advocate staff writer Marsha Shuler contributed to this report.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.