Three state senators Wednesday called for immediately establishing a New York Ebola Response Plan to ensure that hospitals and emergency responders are prepared to treat people infected with the deadly virus.
The senators -- Kemp Hannon (R-Nassau), Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and Jack Martins (R-Mineola) -- said they want the state Health Department to conduct a study on all New York hospitals' readiness to deal with Ebola.
Once the health department's report is finalized, the senators want to hold a special legislative session before year's end to appropriate funds to launch the response plan. Money to pay for equipment, protective clothing and hospital supplies could come from the untapped $4 billion settlement from the financial services industry, they said.
Hannon said he worries that New York's medical centers could face problems similar to those in Dallas, where two nurses contracted the hemorrhagic fever virus despite wearing full protective gear.
Hannon, speaking at a Nassau University Medical Center news conference in East Meadow, questioned whether the protective measures taken by the Centers for Disease Control are sufficient.
"If you've listened to some of the news conferences coming out of Dallas, some of the CDC's protocols were not specific enough," Hannon said.
'People are nervous'
All three senators voiced concern about New York not being a federally designated state for a high-containment hospital unit, which CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden described on Tuesday as four unnamed sites across the country.
The super-containment units are designed to handle an outbreak of a novel pathogen more virulent than Ebola, said Frieden, who added that Ebola can be treated in a hospital isolation unit.
For weeks, hospital executives on Long Island and in New York City have stressed that their institutions are ready to handle an Ebola patient. Virtually all have conducted training and drills to ensure staff readiness.
But as the senators called for the statewide hospital study, Jerry Laricchiuta, president of the Civil Service Employees Local 830, made a case for better training and equipment for first responders.
"People are nervous," Laricchiuta said at the NUMC news briefing.
Dr. Victor Politi, NUMC's chief executive, offered a dose of calm. "Infectious diseases are not anything new for a hospital," Politi said. He also underscored that doctors at his facility could safely handle a patient infected with the Ebola virus.
A new concern has drawn a spotlight in recent days: The proper use of barrier clothing, he said. "Putting on protective gear is not a problem," he said Wednesday. "Taking it off is now an issue."
CDC experts are studying whether the improper removal of equipment led to the Ebola exposures in Texas.
Eyeing strategies in Suffolk
Also Wednesday, health and law enforcement officials from Suffolk County gathered to plot strategies in case an individual becomes infected with Ebola.
Almost 40 people from county police agencies, jails and courts reviewed a theoretical scenario of a patient infected with Ebola who is diagnosed in a doctor's office. The tabletop exercise took place at the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge.
"We learned from watching the Dallas experience the multitude of issues that can come up if there is an infected patient," Suffolk Health Commissioner Dr. James L. Tomarken said. They include determining who decontaminates the victim's residence and establishing legal standing to quarantine a patient or someone in close contact with them.
Skelos, meanwhile, explained why he thinks it's important for the state Health Department to conduct the proposed study. "This could potentially become a pandemic that can accelerate very quickly. We want doctors to be able to diagnose it. This is why we want New York to be prepared," Skelos said.
Global health expert Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations in Manhattan and a former Newsday reporter, said it's important not to panic. Too many myths, she said, have emerged about the disease.
Ebola is an epidemic in three African countries, she said, where it has had devastating consequences. The impact on the rest of the world has been minimal.
"I think as long as the world lets Ebola grow out of control, the more likely for it to move out of the region where it is now. So, it is in everyone's interest to stop the epidemic in West Africa," Garrett said.
There is no scientific evidence of the Ebola virus undergoing the complex genetic changes, she said, that would allow it to become an airborne pathogen that spreads easily like the flu.
With David M. Schwartz