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For Hospitals, Doing More On Ebola May Mean Less Elsewhere

As Bellevue Hospital in New York City treats its first patient with Ebola, other hospitals around the country are pouring resources into getting ready in case they're next.

Eighty-one percent of hospitals have started training their staff in caring for an Ebola patient, according to a survey of 1,039 members of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. They're the folks who manage infection control in hospitals.

In the survey, 78 percent said their hospital is moderately to well prepared to care for a patient with Ebola virus.

But more time spent on Ebola can mean less time to handle day-to-day demands, particularly the Enterovirus D-68 outbreak and the approaching flu season.

"We have to drop so many other things to take this on," says Jennie Mayfield, president of APIC.

Infection prevention and control at hospitals can range from ensuring that nurses and doctors are washing their hands and wearing face masks to coordinating whether or not a certain patient really needs an antibiotic, in order to reduce the prevalence of drug-resistant bugs.

For infection preventionists, a normal routine includes "Looking at the lab results, we're looking at what new patients maybe came onto a unit, we're taking calls from the unit, 'What do you think I should do about this particular thing?'" says Linda Greene, an infection prevention manager and member of APIC's regulatory review panel.

But now, Green says, if the infection preventionist is working on training with personal protective equipment for Ebola, their other tasks aren't getting done as promptly or efficiently as they could be.

As a result, Greene tell Shots the fear is that they'll "miss red flags" for patients with the flu or antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And while patients needn't necessarily be worried about making a visit to their local clinic, she says hospitals could be doing a better job. Greene says hospitals need to think about their worst-case scenario, whether that be an Ebola patient or a larger flu pandemic, and equip themselves with the people and technology to handle it.

"We learned this from the SARS outbreak," Greene says. "People burn out."

The Ebola outbreak has helped highlight the gaps in hospitals' response to highly infectious agents, Greene says, but if hospitals take the time to address those gaps, it won't be so hard when the next big health problem comes our way.

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Alison Bruzek