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There are good reasons to stay calm about Ebola

Last week, one of my colleagues woke up in the middle of the night worrying about Ebola. She was planning an out-of-town trip, where she knew she’d meet people who had flown in from other states. And she was worried about the potential of contracting the dreaded virus.

I told her to stay calm.

Yes, I know. You’re skeptical of people telling you to stay calm. You’re skeptical of U.S. public health officials who said hospitals in this country would know how to isolate and treat an Ebola patient so that infection wouldn’t spread as it has in West Africa.

Then, Thomas Eric Duncan arrived in Texas from Liberia, infected with Ebola. A Dallas hospital turned him away. When he came back two days later, he wasn’t put into isolation. Nurses who treated him didn’t wear adequate protective gear. After the patient died, two of the nurses tested positive for Ebola. One of them had gotten permission from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get on a plane to Cleveland.

Mistakes have been made, as the euphemism goes.

Since we’re all human, more mistakes will probably follow. But I’m glad we’ve learned some lessons, and those two Texas nurses have been transferred to special infection-control units in Atlanta and Maryland.

In the meantime, here’s what I told my colleague.

Instead of focusing only on the three people who have been diagnosed with Ebola in the United States, think about the ones who have returned to this country for treatment after contracting the virus in West Africa.

Three of them – Dr. Kent Brantly, Nancy Writebol and Rick Sacra – are missionaries sponsored by Boone-based Samaritan’s Purse and Charlotte-based SIM. All three have recovered – Brantly and Writebol at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta and Sacra at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

Not one of the doctors or nurses who cared for them contracted the virus. So we know it can be done if CDC protocols are followed.

So what if it happened in Charlotte? No one can say for sure. But we can look back just a few weeks ago for an idea.

In late July, a patient with a fever arrived in the ER at Carolinas Medical Center, and admitted belatedly that he had traveled from West Africa. Based on that disclosure alone, CMC doctors and nurses isolated him and ruled out Ebola before they let him go. Dr. Katie Passaretti, medical director for infection prevention, said: “We acted out of an abundance of caution.”

This all happened before Brantly and Writebol, who had been diagnosed with Ebola in Liberia, ever set foot back on U.S. soil.

Since then, CMC has isolated multiple patients who have traveled from Africa. So far, none have had Ebola. But if the real thing happens here, the hospital’s response suggests we wouldn’t see a repeat of the mistakes made in Texas.

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