By Julie Steenhuysen
COLUMBIA Mo. (Reuters) - A U.S. hospital caring for two Americans carrying the deadly Ebola virus has tapped biosafety experts to ensure doctors, nurses and other staff do everything needed to prevent the virus from escaping from an isolation ward in Atlanta.
The two patients, humanitarian aid workers who became infected with Ebola in West Africa, are believed to be the first Ebola patients ever to be treated on U.S. soil after being flown separately to Emory University hospital.
Sean Kaufman, an Emory biosafety expert, has been advising hospital staff on the steps needed to protect themselves as they care for Dr Kent Brantly of the North Carolina-based Christian organization Samaritan's Purse and missionary Nancy Writebol of the SIM USA group.
"We are sitting in the anteroom. We're watching them interact with the patient and we're making sure every single thing they do is by the book," he said in a videoconference to a biosafety meeting in Columbia, Missouri.
In this case, the book is rather elaborate.
Kaufman said his team ran through the proper methods of putting on and taking off protective suits, gloves, booties and breathing systems required to keep employees safe while working with the Ebola patients. Now they are focused on making sure medical staff comply with those procedures.
The contagious disease, concentrated in Africa, has killed nearly 900 people since February and has no proven cure. The death rate in the current epidemic is about 60 percent, experts say.
Kaufman described the steps taken just to address a small spill of contaminated fluids from Brantly, who arrived at the hospital in a white biohazard suit on Saturday. Writebol arrived on Tuesday.
Staff wearing protective gear set up a perimeter where the spill and any droplets might have landed.
To make sure they do not track the spill outside of that area, staff replaced their protective booties and removed outer gloves that might have been contaminated. They washed their inner gloves, then put on new gloves and booties.
For the spill, the team soaked towels in a special disinfectant, then placed the towels on the spill working from the outside of the spill in. The towels were left there for a period of time to kill any potential virus.
During that waiting period, the staff again replaced gloves and booties. When the disinfectant had enough time to work, the team removed the towels, placed them in biocontainment bags, tied them up tightly, cleaned the outside of the bags with bleach, then repeated the whole process with a second biocontainment bag which they cleaned with bleach.
After that, they placed the material in an autoclave bag, where it will be kept until it can be destroyed. After the bag was removed, the staff members mopped up the spill, and once again changed their protective gear.
Emory University is just a stone's throw from the offices of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which last month came under the spotlight after announcing the accidental release of anthrax and bird flu pathogens. Kaufman, who is also president of Behavioral-Based Improvement Solutions LLC, testified before U.S. lawmakers on the incidents.
Kaufman said he understands the negative public perception about bringing the patients to the United States, noting that just being a part of this process has affected his own life.
"My kids won't hug me until I take a shower," he said, adding that his wife is "a nervous wreck."
(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Grant McCool)