By Julie Steenhuysen
CHICAGO, Oct 22 (Reuters) - U.S. health officials are setting up a network of about 20 go-to hospitals to handle the care of an Ebola patient rather than rely on any facility to treat the virus, according to comments from a senior administration official.
The United States is moving "fairly rapidly" to a "sort of a tiered and regionalized approach to Ebola care," Dr. Nicole Lurie, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, said on a call with hospital administrators on Monday, according to an official transcript.
The move follows repeated missteps in the handling of the first Ebola case diagnosed on U.S. soil. Liberian patient Thomas Eric Duncan was initially turned away by a Dallas hospital despite having a fever and telling staff about his recent arrival from an Ebola-hit country, potentially delaying critical treatment. He died on Oct. 8.
Two nurses caring for him became infected with Ebola, raising questions about how well prepared they were and whether they had the right protective gear to prevent contact with highly infectious bodily fluids from the patient.
With the worst Ebola outbreak on record killing nearly 4,900 people, predominantly in West Africa, and infecting thousands more, U.S. health officials say it is likely another case will arrive here at some point.
Lurie said the government is identifying hospitals, first near cities where travelers may be arriving from countries battling Ebola. The U.S. government has designated five international airports as the only means to enter the country from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
The goal, Lurie said, is "to identify maybe up to 20 hospitals around the country" with advanced care capabilities, "so that no patient is more than a six- or eight-hour ambulance ride from one of those hospitals."
Prior to Duncan's arrival, four U.S. hospitals had been considered "Ebola-ready" based on the training they gave staff and the presence of high biocontainment wards for infectious disease. They include Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha and the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, all of which have treated a few Ebola patients, as well as St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, Montana.
But those hospitals each have only a few beds in their isolation wards. In the past week, at least two U.S. states - Illinois and New York - have designated a small number of "go-to" hospitals to handle Ebola.
Lurie told hospitals that if they are not equipped to care for an Ebola patient, "what we would want you to do is isolate that patient in a room with a private bathroom," she said.
Those hospitals would then be expected to call the local health department or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to talk through what to do next.
Dr. Toby Merlin, who is leading the CDC's domestic Ebola response, said the agency is working with Lurie's office to help hospitals which volunteer to take on potential Ebola patients.
In Illinois, four hospitals have been designated as facilities able to handle an Ebola patient. But that could change soon, said Danny Chun, a spokesman for the Illinois Hospital Association.
Chun said the CDC and local health departments are having "all kinds of meetings and discussions" on the issue of which hospitals will deliver more advanced care for Ebola patients.
"This is happening everywhere in the country," he said.
Officials from the Department of Health and Human Services were not immediately available for comment. (Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Jonathan Oatis)