GALVESTON — A secure part of John Sealy Hospital could become the designated treatment center for future Texas Ebola patients, state officials announced Friday.
Citing the University of Texas Medical Branch’s experience with handling infectious diseases, and the level of training its employees receive in containment and treatment of such diseases, the head of a state Ebola Task Force said the medical branch would be the first choice among all Texas’ hospitals to become an Ebola treatment center.
“(The Department of State Health Services) should immediately initiate discussions with the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and its local stakeholders to establish UTMB as the first of two designated Ebola treatment facilities in Texas,” Brett Girior said during a news conference Friday. “UTMB is well known as one of the world’s leading resources for all aspects of high-consequence infectious diseases like Ebola, and a national center which provides training to professionals from all around the world on these diseases.”
No agreement to designate the medical branch an Ebola treatment center has been made, officials said Friday. The medical branch is not currently treating any Ebola patients and has not been asked to accept any patients from other hospitals.
During a town-hall meeting held for employees Friday afternoon, President David Callender said the medical branch was prepared to handle any Ebola patients diagnosed in its facilities.
“We have been able to care for an occupational exposure for some time,” he said. “We are prepared now to care for a patient identified within our system.”
The medical branch has three self-contained rooms that could be used to isolate Ebola patients, while 32 nurses and “a number of” its doctors are trained to treat patients with highly infectious diseases. Seven lab technicians have volunteered to handle clinical samples from patients with Ebola symptoms.
“We plan to be able to provide support at those sites so that we don’t have to transport specimens to other areas of campus,” Callender said. “We’ve done extensive training and thinking, not only about how we identify patients, but how we ultimately move them to a site for care.”
No medical students or residents would be asked to treat Ebola patients, and only doctors who volunteered would be assigned to treat such patients, Callender said.
The medical branch was required to construct the isolation facilities as part of agreements allowing it to operate the Galveston National Laboratory. The facilities were required in case researchers at the national lab contracted any of the infectious diseases studied there. The isolation rooms, which are in the main hospital building, could be used for clinical patients, as well, officials said.
The hospital was buying extra specialized supplies to help with the treatment of Ebola, Callender said.
“With this being a threat, although it’s a very limited small threat, we need to make sure that our clinics, our community centers, our urgent care centers, all the inpatient areas, have an adequate supply,” Callender said.
No procedures were in place to accept an Ebola patient from an outside system, Callender said. In order for that to happen, state and hospital officials will need to discuss what extra measures the medical branch would need to take to prepare for more patients.
“We’ve been visited by a number of state officials over past several weeks,” Callender said. The officials have asked about the medical branch’s ability to handle patients from other areas of the state. “We just have to begin those conversation. This is really for the longer term.”
While no patients are anticipated immediately, the hospital is expecting the arrival of medical waste from Dallas’s Presbyterian Hospital.
Callender said 100 55-gallon drums are waiting to be transported from Dallas to Galveston for disposal.
The exact time and date the waste will be brought back to Galveston was not yet known. When it does arrive, the large cardboard canisters will be brought to a loading dock and transferred to a nearby incinerator.
The incinerator, which burns at a temperature of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, would destroy any living traces of the virus that remain on the waste. Because the waste had already been sitting in containers for seven days, any traces of the virus would likely already be gone, Callender said.
Ebola cannot survive outside a living host and dies at 120 degrees.
Galveston’s incinerator is used to burn 1,500 pounds of medical waste a day. It’s the only state-licensed medical incinerator large enough to handle the containers from the Dallas hospital, Callender said.
The ash from the waste will be disposed of by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
While the medical waste has been the source of a small controversy — a plan to bring the materials to a site in Louisiana was called off after the state was granted a restraining order — Callender said there should be little concern about the waste being brought to and destroyed in Galveston.
“We make rational decisions here in Texas,” Callender said.