Fighting Ebola Requires Better Planning | Commentary

Posted November 19, 2014 at 11:08am

The number of Ebola cases in the United States may have subsided, but the epidemic in Africa is far from over. And while it is clear the U.S. health care system ultimately rose to the challenge of caring for multiple Ebola patients, the grave mistakes made in Texas should serve as a wake-up call. We must ensure our health care system is better prepared to diagnose, treat and prevent the spread of Ebola and other diseases, which is why we are proposing specific legislation to advance this vital goal.

In response to the ongoing crisis, President Barack Obama has issued an emergency appropriations request for fiscal 2015 that includes $6.18 billion to continue the response to help end the Ebola epidemic, enhance domestic preparedness, accelerate availability of vaccines and therapeutics, and strengthen the global capability to prevent the spread of infectious diseases before they become epidemics.

These steps are needed to prevent additional cases in the United States and to address the epidemic at its source, in Africa. However, we must also ensure these dollars are used efficiently and directed to where they can do the most good. Using a voluntary process to designate regional hospitals around the country with special expertise to receive new Ebola patients is an important start. These treatment centers — or “hubs” — would provide extensive training to all health care workers regarding the appropriate safety protocols for Ebola cases, the proper use of personal protective gear and disposal of contaminated waste.

The two cases of nurses who contracted the Ebola virus while caring for a patient at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital highlighted the need for these steps and revealed vulnerabilities in our nation’s public health preparedness, raising serious concerns about the ability of local hospitals across the country to treat Ebola patients without exposing health care workers to undue risks. We must be prepared to respond immediately and safely to any new domestic cases of Ebola that are found in our health care system in order to protect health care workers and prevent the spread of the disease.

Currently, our ability to respond to an outbreak of Ebola is distressingly limited. There are only four hospitals with biocontainment facilities in the United States, and together they have a total of 11 beds that can be used at any time for Ebola patients. In the event those facilities become full, it is imperative we have the capability to isolate and treat newly diagnosed Ebola patients at appropriate alternative locations that are trained, staffed and prepared to provide specialized treatment. While the president’s FY 2015 emergency appropriation request designates $166 million to the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund for immediately preparing hospitals to respond to Ebola patients, the administration must have a specific plan to ensure that more hospitals are sufficiently prepared for the next highly infectious disease outbreak.

We can do better.

Together, we have crafted a bipartisan proposal to allocate funds to support the establishment of regional designated hospitals that can provide a higher level of specialized care for Ebola patients in an isolated setting. The establishment of these treatment centers would improve our ability to treat any future domestic Ebola cases and other highly infectious diseases in several important ways. First, any new patients diagnosed with Ebola within the United States would immediately be transported to the closest regional treatment center for care. Each designated treatment center would be equipped with physicians who have expertise in diagnosing and treating infectious diseases such as Ebola, health care workers specifically trained to care for Ebola patients, and all of the equipment, training, and resources necessary to treat patients with Ebola safely and effectively. The hospitals that volunteer to be treatment centers will also be provided with extra financial resources that can aid in the expenses and complexities of treating an Ebola patient.

We should be prepared in case this or the next infectious disease once again reaches our shores. The creation of these designated Ebola treatment centers is a critical component of our nation’s preparedness in battling Ebola and other infectious diseases and will help protect the safety of health care workers, our communities, and future patients.

Sen. Edward J. Markey is a Democrat from Massachusetts; Sen. Rob Portman is a Republican from Ohio.