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Teams Ready to Treat Highly Infectious Diseases

As Africa grapples with another Ebola outbreak, the Emergency Department and the Special Pathogens Response Team are ramping up efforts to identify, diagnose and treat patients with highly infectious diseases.

"The current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a great reminder for all healthcare workers that they should always ask about a patient’s travel history," said Jonathan Grein, MD, medical director, Department of Hospital Epidemiology, and infection control officer. "As an academic medical center in a big city, we need to track global outbreaks of Ebola or newly emerging viruses like Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). These seemingly exotic diseases are only a plane ride away."

Triage staff plays a vital role in helping Cedars-Sinai safely treat highly infectious diseases by gathering initial symptoms from patients who walk into the Emergency Department. When a patient is suffering from symptoms of an infection, triage staff will ask for a travel history. If any high-risk destinations are flagged, such as the Arabian Peninsula where MERS cases remains active, clinicians will immediately isolate that patient and wear masks during treatment.

"If a patient comes in and says, 'I just came from Saudi Arabia, and I’ve got a fever and a headache,' that’s easy," said Sam Torbati, MD, co-chair of the Emergency Department. "The hard part is when a patient says they have a fever and a headache, and you have no way to know where they’ve been and no reason to assume until you ask."

Torbati and his colleagues are evaluating new tools to help triage staff stay up-to-date on emerging pathogens. They are also exploring new features in the electronic health record system that would flag a travel history request for certain patients.

If it appeared that a patient was suffering from a deadly highly infectious disease, the Special Pathogens Response Team would spring into action. This group of volunteer clinicians, lab scientists and waste transporters is prepared to accept a patient from anywhere in the nation—or even an American abroad—with only eight hours notice. Preparedness includes prepping critical care unit rooms, evaluating possible experimental therapy and retraining staff in safety protocols for protective gear.

"We’re much better prepared than we were three or four years ago during the last Ebola outbreak because of all work that’s gone into building this program," Grein said.

To join the Special Pathogens Response Team, contact Jennifer Garland at Jennifer.Garland@cshs.org.