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Ebola Roundtable Sparks Divisions Over District's Preparedness

A protester outside of the White House encourages a travel ban from Ebola-affected countries. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Though national attention turned to a congressional hearing on Ebola preparedness Friday, two members of D.C. Council Committee on Health also met to assess how the District is preparing for the virus, resulting in clashes between lawmakers, hospital officials and nurses.  

“We are nowhere near prepared for an Ebola patient at our hospital,” said Jowita Lyn, an emergency room nurse at Providence Hospital in Northeast D.C.  

Referring to breaches in protocol that led to two nurses contracting Ebola while treating an infected patient in Dallas, Texas, Lyn said, “What happened at Texas Health Presbyterian could easily happen at Providence Hospital.”  

Lyn treated one of the suspected Ebola patients in D.C. at Providence. She said she knew to ask whether the patient had traveled to an affected country because of her own research on the subject.  

The nurse said the only training she received was a printout of Centers for Disease Control guidelines. Lyn also said the protective gear at the hospital were “paper thin gowns that are barely thicker than a napkin.” Providence Chief Medical Officer Dr. Patricia Evans refuted the claims, emphasizing that the hospital has had an Ebola plan in place since August and updated the plan last week. “To say that there has been no training, no drills, no equipment available … to me that is, feeds into the fear,” said Evans.  

Two other nurses, who are were also members of National Nurses United, a union, expressed concerns about a lack of training and a need for enforceable standards, as opposed to voluntary guidelines currently in place.  

“We are very concerned that today here in this city, we are not ready,” said Stephen Frum, a nurse in the burn unit at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. Frum called upon the council and the mayor to direct hospitals to comply with mandatory procedures.  

At-large councilmember David Grasso fired back at the charges that hospitals were not prepared, cautioning “embellishments” that stoked fear about contracting a virus that is very difficult to contract in the first place.  

“I think we should be very careful not to use this hearing as a tool to get collective bargaining agreements through this city,” said Grasso.  

Grasso referred to earlier testimony from Dr. Lawrence Romunno, Chief Medical Officer at Sibley Memorial Hospital. Romunno said, “I think we have to remember that although this is a deadly illness if contracted, to some extent you have to try hard to get it.”  

Romunno and more than a dozen health professionals from area hospitals spoke at the "roundtable," which lasted roughly four hours. They stressed that their hospitals were prepared to handle a patient with Ebola and have been conducting drills to prepare for the virus.  

No single hospital has been designated to take in a confirmed Ebola patient in D.C. Rather, the emphasis has been on preparing all hospitals for a potential case.  

Department of Health Director Dr. Joxel Garcia spoke at the beginning and end of the discussion and tried to assuage concerns about contracting the disease. Much like he did during an Oct. 6 briefing on Ebola , Garcia described fear as one of the biggest factors D.C. is confronting.  

Garcia said one thing he could improve on is educating the public to prevent Ebola from becoming a "stigma issue."  

Regarding the news Thursday that a doctor who treated Ebola patients in Guinea had tested positive for the disease, Garcia said the District would be able to keep track of any people arriving from West Africa and monitor their health. He said D.C. residents who need to be monitored are required to check in twice daily with health officials to report their temperature and any symptoms. If any signs of Ebola appear, they would be transported to a facility for isolation, he said.  

Garcia assured the council that "all health care providers," from school nurses to dentists, were being trained on how to handle the epidemic. He said the department had been in contact with transportation authorities, including Metro , and was working to coordinate how with education officials to brief other people inside schools, like teachers and bus drivers.  

"Right now, if I were to visit Liberia, I would like to be living in the District of Columbia," Garcia told the council.  

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