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Altru prepared to handle Ebola, other infectious diseases

As the nationwide Ebola scare continues -- a physician in New York tested positive for the disease Thursday -- the risk of Ebola hitting Grand Forks is low. But just in case Ebola finds its way into the area, Altru Health System, the North Dakota...




As the nationwide Ebola scare continues - a physician in New York tested positive for the disease Thursday - the risk of Ebola hitting Grand Forks is low.

But just in case Ebola finds its way into the area, Altru Health System, the North Dakota Department of Health and Grand Forks Public Health have a plan ready.

Experts say the trickiest part about containing and monitoring the spread of Ebola is that the disease is only contagious while a person is showing symptoms, which can take between two and 21 days to appear. Therefore, if people are exposed to Ebola, they might not know they contracted the disease until symptoms show up nearly three weeks later. This can make determining the source of the disease difficult.


The doctor in New York, identified as 33-year-old Craig Spencer, worked with Doctors Without Borders and recently returned from Guinea, one of the African nations hardest hit by Ebola. He developed a fever and gastrointestinal symptoms and notified health officials Thursday morning.

Tracking Ebola

Michelle Feist, epidemiologist with the health department, said a major part of responding to an Ebola outbreak in Grand Forks would be isolating the patient and monitoring those who had contact with the patient while symptoms were present. Symptoms include fever, nausea or vomiting.

Feist said if a suspected Ebola case were reported, health care professionals and state and local health departments would be contacted to begin monitoring the situation. After the local hospital or clinic admitted the patient, he would be interviewed extensively to determine when exposure occurred and how many people came in direct contact with the patient shortly before and while symptoms were present.

For those who had direct contact with the patient, Grand Forks Public Health would provide active monitoring for symptoms, which would consist of taking the patient’s temperature twice daily for the 21-day incubation period of the disease.

Delbert Streitz, emergency preparedness coordinator for Grand Forks Public Health, said the department would also recommend these individuals limit their travel and avoid contact with large groups of people until they are done being monitored. If a person makes it through the 21-day period without showing symptoms, he would be released. However, if symptoms did occur, he would be taken to a medical facility for evaluation and tested.

Calling ahead

According to Altru Infection Control Coordinator Shannon Hansen, Altru Health System is prepared to handle Ebola cases at any of its clinics, but they can handle them even better if they know about it before the patient arrives.


“Calm the fears. Call first (and) we are ready,” Hansen said.

By having a patient call ahead, the hospital staff will be more prepared to isolate them from other patients and begin the risk assessment process to determine the patient’s exposure and contact history. The quicker this is done, the quicker officials can begin monitoring those who have been in contact with the patient.

Although Altru has not dealt with Ebola before - no cases have been found or suspected in the state - Hansen and Altru Emergency Preparedness Manager Sheryl Austin both said the hospital has prepared for or dealt with outbreaks of infectious diseases in the past, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), avian (bird) flu and tuberculosis.

According to Streitz, getting an individual with Ebola into hospital care early is vital to containing the spread of the disease.

An individual with Ebola grows more contagious as the disease worsens, so the risk of spreading it to others increases. If a patient is isolated in the hospital when symptoms are minor, by the time they worsen, contact with others is slim to none.

School Safety

UND is also doing its part to monitor its students, staff and faculty to prevent or respond to any potential Ebola outbreak.

The health department requested all 11 North Dakota University System campuses actively monitor students for fever who are coming to campus from Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea. UND has also implemented an Incident Command System, which assesses students, faculty or staff who have been in any of those three countries in the past 21 days.


Monitoring is done through daily temperature monitoring at UND Student Health Services. SHS uses CDC-recommended protocol for screening, evaluation, isolation and protective procedures.



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