U.S. hospitals improved infectious disease preparedness in response to Ebola threat, federal watchdog says

As alarm rises over another Ebola outbreak in Congo, a new OIG report points out preparedness in U.S. hospitals. (Getty/choja)

Preparedness for emerging infectious diseases threats saw a marked improvement at U.S. hospitals after an Ebola outbreak scare in 2014, according to a new report from a federal watchdog agency.

The challenge now? Keeping that level of preparedness in the midst of competing priorities.

According to the HHS Office of Inspector General, 71% of hospital administrators reported their facilities were unprepared to receive Ebola patients in 2014. But after scrambling to update emergency plans, train staff to care for patients with emerging infectious diseases (EID), purchasing additional supplies and conducting drills, 86% of administrators said their facilities were prepared in 2017.

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This preparation isn't consistent across the board. For instance, 23% of administrators at critical-access hospitals (CAH) indicated they still felt unprepared to respond to emerging infectious diseases like Ebola in 2017. Administrators from 84% of hospitals reported they revised their emergency plans to improve EID preparedness, with much of the improvement focused on building in redundancies for needed staffing and supplies. For example, the report said, hospitals sometimes used their plans to map out which staff they would need during each particular kind of emergency and where they would turn for supplemental staffing.

Administrators pointed to the need to focus hospital resources and staff time to more common hazards, such as natural disasters, and cited difficulty in using government guidance to prepare for emerging infectious diseases.  One in three hospitals also indicated they did not know their hospital's role in a tiered hospital framework designed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to guide hospitals in receiving and treating Ebola cases.

The report comes at a time alarm is again growing in Congo with the World Health Organization's declaration of another outbreak on Aug. 1.

While WHO has not yet called the oubreak a global health emergency, aid groups have expressed serious concerns about the likelihood of spread across the region amid sometimes violent resistance to health workers, the Associated Press reported. As the Washington Post reported, the location of the outbreak in an area near the border with plenty of instability and mistrust in the government will make this outbreak far harder to contain than previous outbreaks.

They also recommended CMS add EIDs to the definition of "all hazards" in the State Operations Manual to promote inclusion of EIDs in hospital emergency planning.