The reports from the western Africa Ebola virus epidemic are terrifying, and last week the United States saw its first confirmed case in Dallas. But Richmond health officials say not to worry — they're prepared.
"It's easy for Ebola to cause a lot of concern, but the reality is [western Africa] is a very different context," says Danny Avula, deputy director of the Virginia Health Department's Richmond district office. "We have an entire health care infrastructure where we're all about early identification and isolation."
Avula says the Health Department is prepared to coordinate a response among area hospitals, doctors and first responders under the same type of planning in place for other public health emergencies.
The first thing the department wants the public to know is that the virus, which causes hemorrhaging and eventual organ failure, spreads only through direct body-fluid contact with infected people.
Emergency Coordinator Patrick Holland says he called hospitals to verify they had adequate personal protective equipment last week: "We crunched the numbers and said, 'If [an outbreak] were to occur, how quickly we would burn through supplies?'"
The answer? Well, it's a moot point, Holland says, because there's "a plan A, B, C and D" for getting more. And technology allows for real-time updates on who's getting sick and where, he says. FirstWatch, a system that monitors 911 calls and hospital visits, sends alerts if enough calls from a specific area come in with symptoms such as fever or heavy breathing.
Avula says that while there are meetings and check-ins happening, it's unprecedented for the United States to see the kind of scenario like the outbreak that's claimed at least 3,300 lives in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
"I don't want to downplay it," he says. "I do think it's important for the public to be aware of how it's transmitted, but that should reassure and not lead to panic."