Ebola preparedness improves, but capacity remains an issue

A year after a deadly Ebola outbreak gripped the United States in fear and tested hospitals' capacity to treat highly infectious disease, a new study reports that nationwide capacity to contain and treat Ebola remains limited.

Hospitals developed Ebola treatment centers based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), researchers noted, but there are no requirements for specific capabilities of such treatment centers.

The U.S. has 55 Ebola treatment centers with 84 isolation beds for adults and 91 for children, including 35 in pediatric hospitals. Although most have negative pressure isolation rooms, anterooms and a process for sterilizing infectious waste, only 23 percent are able to sterilize infectious waste on site, according to the study.

Nationwide preparedness is improved thanks to development of the centers, but "challenges remained in providing the necessary treatment, and often strained an institution's capacity," according to an announcement describing the findings.

Waste disposal was one of the key areas of strain, according to the announcement. Installing proper onsite waste disposal equipment including incinerators costs about $100,000; transporting the waste for offsite disposal can cost millions and increase the risk of exposure.

Staffing challenges and the unknowns of treating pediatric Ebola patients also create problems, the study found.

Additionally, the hospitals remain challenged in their ability to treat airborne infectious viruses including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), lead author John Lowe, Ph.D., said in a statement.

The findings were published online in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology.

Meanwhile, work to expand the nation's ability to fight the spread of infectious disease continues. This fall six U.S. universities were awarded an $11 million CDC grant to build CDC Prevention Epicenters to prevent the spread of infectious diseases in healthcare facilities. The six new centers will double the number of prevention epicenters across the country.

The federal government got into the act as well. A bipartisan report issued this fall by a blue ribbon panel on biodefense said gaps in preparedness against biological weapons and infectious diseases became obvious during the Ebola outbreak and during an outbreak of avian flu at Midwestern poultry farms. The committee blamed lack of leadership and coordination across federal agencies and with nonfederal stakeholders, and innovation-stifling risk aversion, as FierceHealthcare previously reported.

To learn more:
- here's the study abstract
- read the announcement