Connecticut legislators and New Haven public health officials gathered on Thursday — a day after Ebola claimed its first victim in the U.S. — to discuss the epidemic.
U.S. congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and Senators Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 and Chris Murphy led the meeting, at which they described the state’s plans for improving hospital preparedness to deal both with panicked patients and the logistics of handling suspected cases. They solicited suggestions from officials present, including representatives from local hospitals, public health agencies and biotechnology companies.
“It’s one thing to plan, it’s another thing to be prepared,” State Public Health Commissioner Jewel Mullen ’77 GRD ’96 said. “You can’t prepare after the fact.”
The legislators repeatedly emphasized that there is no cause for alarm in Connecticut, but the state must be prepared to contain the disease.
With the CDC screening incoming passengers at five U.S. airports, Blumenthal advocated extending screenings to the Bridgeport, New Haven and New London seaports to keep the disease from entering the country. On Tuesday, the White House announced that the U.S. Coast Guard would be mobilized to screen incoming ships and monitor ports.
Within the nation’s borders, the focus is on improving the response in hospital emergency rooms, said Matt Carter, Connecticut state epidemiologist and director for infectious diseases. Most Ebola patients have symptoms so severe that they find themselves in the emergency room — their point of entry into the health care system. Because of this, emergency room personnel in particular must be aware of their role in dealing with patients who have suspected cases of the virus.
James Paturas, director of the Yale New Haven Center for Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Response, pointed out that large hospitals’ various “ports of entry” pose challenges to creating a streamlined response during outbreaks.
Many public health officials also worried about the inconsistency of professional knowledge about Ebola at different health care providers across the state. Sue Largarde, chief executive officer of the Fair Haven Community Health Center, expressed concern at the discrepancies between information available to patients who present their symptoms at a clinic rather than at a hospital.
“One of the biggest concerns that we have is that, not only should the messaging be as good as it can be, it should be consistent,” Paturas said. “Consistency is critical.”
The Department of Public Health has sent out letters and checklists to hospitals to encourage “situational awareness,” Mullen said. The letters instruct health care providers in best practices, while the checklists inform the DPH of potential flaws in health care systems across the state.
Blumenthal encouraged a multipronged approach of both improving health care and investing money into research. DeLauro, a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, recently petitioned for the committee to reconvene to discuss the recent outbreaks of Ebola and enterovirus. At Thursday’s meeting, she emphasized the negative effect that recent budget cuts have had on public health agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and especially Health and Human Services, which has experienced a 44 percent budget cut.
“If we are to contain and be prepared for these crises, then the agencies who have the responsibilities for addressing these should be provided with the resources they need in order to contain the crisis abroad and save lives,” DeLauro said.
Representatives from local biotechnology company Protein Sciences Corporation were present to speak about the progress they have made in developing a vaccine to prevent Ebola. The project was put on hold several years ago after losing NIH funding, but was recently revived.
Since resuming work on the project, scientists have developed a G protein-based drug that is currently progressing to clinical trials, President and CEO of Protein Sciences Corporation Manon Cox said.
On Tuesday, Gov. Dannel Malloy declared a public health emergency, granting Connecticut Public Health Commissioner Jewel Mullen the power to quarantine.