Kitzhaber Lays Out Monitoring and Voluntary Quarantines to Prevent Ebola Outbreak

Six Oregon health systems have agreed to be ready to treat Ebola patients if someone Oregon comes down with the virus. People traveling from the affected countries in West Africa will be monitored and asked to stay away from the public.

Gov. John Kitzhaber announced Monday that Oregon would contain any potential Ebola virus threat by hewing closely to guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and not take more drastic steps as ordered on the East Coast to detain anyone returning to the United States who had come in contact with the disease in West Africa.

Anyone who’s coming to Oregon after recent stays in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea will be monitored for symptoms of the disease, checked in with public health departments, and asked to stay at home for three weeks before returning to work, riding public transit or visiting public places.

Kitzhaber, a former emergency room physician, defended his stance before reporters in Portland as both the best policy from a medical and practical standpoint.

“The progression of the disease is very clear,” Kitzhaber said, noting that Ebola is only contagious when an infected person shows symptoms. Cordoning off people returning from Africa at medical facilities might prevent hospitals from treating other people in much dire need of care. “You could overwhelm the capacity of our hospitals,” he added.

Six health systems across Western Oregon -- Oregon Health & Science University, Providence Health System, PeaceHealth, Samaritan Health Services, Kaiser Permanente and Legacy Health -- will act as regional hubs to contain the disease if Oregon has a case of Ebola. Smaller hospitals, clinics and first responders will be asked to transfer any patient to these facilities.

Dr. Katrina Hedberg, the state epidemiologist, said people entering the United States from those countries will be screened before they are allowed in. At Portland International Airport, they’ll be given an aid kit, including a thermometer to help them comply with the monitoring. There are no direct flights from the affected countries to Oregon.

If any person exhibits symptoms, such as vomiting or fever, they will be placed under more stringent medical care. Hedberg said that the state government has the authority to order further precautions if a crisis develops.

Both Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey backed off from their emergency policies to isolate returning healthcare professionals after pressure from President Obama and health experts. A nurse who had been kept in isolation was allowed to return to her home in Maine to serve out her quarantine.

Oregon has already requested voluntary quarantines of at least two individuals who returned here from West Africa. One was released from quarantine after three weeks passed without signs of illness. The other, a Multnomah County resident, had visited that part of the world but had not come into direct contact with the disease.

Although highly contagious, the disease is still largely non-existent in the United States, with just a handful of reported cases and one death. It isn’t airborne, but Ebola can be transmitted through contact with any of the bodily fluids of a person who is sick or died of Ebola -- including feces, urine, blood, vomit, semen, spit and sweat. Anything a sick person touches could be contaminated with the virus.

But because the disease is only contagious in the window of time that an infected person shows symptoms, each Ebola patient in the recent outbreak has infected two people on average -- much lower than an airborne germ like measles, where the average infected person infects 18 other people.

About 10,000 people in West Africa have become sick from Ebola and roughly half of those have died.

Dr. Sharon Meieran, an emergency room doctor representing the Oregon Medical Association, said Oregon was much more likely to be hit by people coming to emergency rooms worried they may have caught Ebola when they were only sick with the flu. She said if most Oregonians want to help the state wait out the pandemic, they should get their flu shots.

Dr. George Brown, president of Legacy Health, applauded the governor for coordinating health systems, including his own, to prevent an epidemic in Oregon: “There’s no better time for this state to have a physician at the helm of this state,” Brown said.

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