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Q&A: Understanding Oregon's Ebola Strategy


Governor John Kitzhaber and other health experts were in Portland Monday to say that the risk of Ebola getting a foothold in Oregon is low. 

Governor John Kitzhaber and other health experts were in Portland Monday to say that the risk of Ebola getting a foothold in Oregon is low. 

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

Governor John Kitzhaber and other health experts were in Portland Monday to say that the risk of Ebola getting a foothold in Oregon is low.  The only way to contract it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is to touch the body fluids of a sick person or animal, or to touch contaminated objects.  

Reporter Kristian Foden-Vencil was given a tour of Oregon’s incident room, which has been activated for the disease. OPB announcer Gretchen Kilby asked him what he learned.

Gretchen Kilby: So the governor says the risk of contracting Ebola is low. Why did he take the time to deal with this issue today?

Kristian Foden-Vencil: Well there have been several cases on the East Coast, where people have been quarantined because of their travels to West Africa. And there have been complaints about the mandatory quarantine system.  Kitzhaber wanted to stress that Oregon is ready to deal with the disease, and he’s not too concerned.

GK: So what is Oregon’s system?

KFV: The state has decided that any health care workers, who have been helping out with Ebola in West Africa, need to voluntarily quarantine themselves at home for 21 days. So no going to work and no travel on public transport.

GK: How about people who are just visiting from West Africa?

KFV: Well, there are a couple of different ways the state can learn about people who are traveling here.
First, when they arrive at an airport directly from a West African country that’s on a CDC list, they’re given a kit so they can monitor their temperatures.

PDX doesn’t have any direct flights from Africa, so that’s not happening here. But the traveler is asked about their final destination. If it is Oregon, the feds then pass that traveler’s name and details on to the state.

Dr. Paul Lewis the Tri-County Public Health Officer says they’ve seen three such cases in Portland. Two have already finished the 21 days of monitoring. The third still has a couple of weeks left. But that person is considered at low risk of contracting Ebola.

The state learned about that particular visitor from their local hosts, who called the state before the visit. The traveler’s identity is being kept secret. But Dr. Lewis says that person is contacted twice a day for a temperature check-in.

You may remember that Governor Kitzhaber used to be an emergency room doctor. Here’s what he said today:

John Kitzhaber:  We have six Oregon health systems that have agreed to serve as regional referral centers, for patients who are positively diagnosed with the Ebola virus, which indicates that they have both the capacity and the training to provide safe and appropriate treatment. These six institutions are Oregon Health and Sciences University, Legacy Health, Peace Health, Providence Health and Services, Samaritan Health Services and Kaiser Permanente Northwest.

GK: So the state has also set up an incident command center to deal with any Ebola cases. You got to have a look at it today. What was it like?

KFV: Yes. So it was a large room on the fourth floor of the state health building in inner Northeast Portland.
I asked Ebola response planning chief, Melissa Powell, to paint a picture for us.

Melissa Powell:  So we’ve got a big U-shaped table in the middle where incident manager sits as well as the chiefs of the different branches in our planning. So the planning chief, the operations chief. Our liaisons who work with other health departments in other organizations and our senior health adviser. So those are the people who provide our medical advice.

KFV (speaking to Powell): Big map on the wall with numbers and times. Just explain.

Powell: We have a map of Oregon’s hospitals. Of course that’s important for any health related response. And then we’ve got the hospital capacity system up as well as our health alert network. So those are tools that we use to communicate with our hospital and local health department partners about what the situation is and to gather information from them.

KFV: There were about a dozen people in the room. They meet every morning here to decide what, if anything needs to be done. And then, since everything’s calm right now, they go back to their usual jobs. In the past, the room’s been activated for the H1N1 virus, the flu, for flooding and more recently the summer wildfires.

GK: How about hospitals and clinics? Did the governor feel that they were ready to deal with any Ebola cases?

KFV: He did. But part of the problem has been the CDC changing its guidelines as the agency learns more about the disease. For example, just (Monday) afternoon — shortly after the governor and local health officials spoke — the CDC issued new guidelines. States and local public health authorities are now being advised to actively monitor people, rather than have them monitor themselves.

I did call public health officials to ask for their response to these new guidelines, but I didn’t hear anything back.

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