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Editorial: Get hospitals ready to ID and treat Ebola

A medical worker wears a protective suit inside

A medical worker wears a protective suit inside an isolation room equipped to handle people inflected with the Ebola virus at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York on Oct. 8, 2014. Credit: EPA / Justin Lane

Three cases of Ebola in the United States is no reason to panic. But now that treating the virus has resulted in a Dallas nurse and a second health care worker being infected on American soil, federal officials should rethink how future cases are handled.

Every hospital must be prepared to identify and isolate potential Ebola patients who walk through their doors. That won't change. But public health officials should designate a specific hospital in each county or region with the expertise, experience and facilities to handle deadly infectious diseases. Those hospitals should be identified so people who suspect they're infected would know the best places to go.

In a new move to better control transmission of the virus, Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday that once an Ebola case is confirmed, an expert infection control team will be sent to assist the treating hospital.

Better still, Ebola patients should be moved to one of four hospitals in the country with biocontainment units specially equipped to handle high-risk infectious diseases, or to other large hospitals judged up to the job. New York City officials have tapped the Bellevue Hospital Center.

State health officials should follow that model and designate specific hospitals on Long Island and in the rest of the state. That would reduce the risk of infection for people such as Dallas nurse Nina Pham, who was diagnosed after treating Thomas Eric Duncan, who died Oct. 8. The infection of a second hospital worker was disclosed Wednesday. Officials don't know how Pham or the other worker became  infected, but they suspect some slip-up in following procedures.

To prevent more cases, only the best-equipped hospitals with the best trained staff should treat Ebola patients. As the disease progresses, the concentration of virus in a patient's bodily fluids soars dramatically. And a patient can discharge five to 10 liters of fluid a day via diarrhea and vomiting, increasing the risk of exposure. The protocol for medical staff donning and removing gowns, masks, gloves and other protective gear must be followed meticulously. A lack of training and expertise can be deadly.

But controlling the spread of Ebola here isn't enough. Ending the epidemic in West Africa, where 4,033 people have died, is the only way to ensure people in this country will be safe. President Barack Obama should energize the international effort to provide all the resources necessary to control the outbreaks in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

Much more needs to be done. Doctors in Sierra Leone are reportedly sending Ebola patients home from overwhelmed hospitals with relatives who are given only painkillers, rehydrating solution and gloves. And in Liberia, there have been rumblings of a strike by nurses because they haven't gotten the hazard pay promised.

Private contributions help, such as the $25 million Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg pledged Tuesday. And the courageous work in Africa of groups such as Doctors Without Borders is invaluable. But it will require more resources from governments to control this epidemic. Until that happens, officials here must continue to learn and adapt to minimize the risk that more Americans will fall victim to Ebola.