U.S. Hospitals Get Ready for Potential Zika Spread

Providers hope for the best, prepare for the worst

Public health agencies, as well as individual health care providers, have their work cut out for them in the looming battle against the Zika virus, according to an article posted on the FierceHealthcare website.

In an interview on National Public Radio, Tom Frieden, MD, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), advised pregnant women in the U.S. to avoid geographic areas where the virus is spreading––a significantly more ominous warning than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) advice that women traveling to affected nations should use mosquito repellent and wear clothing with long sleeves, columnist Zack Budryk writes.

The CDC has made Zika a top priority, not only in the U.S. but in affected Latin American nations. The agency is helping those countries to test for the virus and to reduce their mosquito populations. In the wake of the announcement that a Texas woman contracted the virus through sexual intercourse, public health experts have also warned that the Zika virus could potentially be spread through the exchange of bodily fluids.

Meanwhile, leaders at U.S. hospitals are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, FierceHealthcare says. A Chicago hospital is testing a patient for the virus, while in New Jersey, hospitals are taking steps to prepare for patients despite no sign of any infected individuals yet. Similar efforts have been reported in West Virginia. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott declared a public health emergency in four counties that have confirmed cases of the virus.

Public health agencies must look to the international response to the Ebola virus outbreak in crafting their response to Zika, according to a blog post from the Harvard Business Review. This will mean implementing similar protocols that aim to identify potentially infected patients as early as possible and quarantining them.

This will be more difficult in the case of Zika, however, as its symptoms are vague and less likely to manifest compared with Ebola. To that end, the Harvard blog states, public health authorities must focus on restricting exposure to the mosquitoes that transmit the virus through precautions such as mosquito repellent and insecticide-treated bed nets.

In a related story, Dr. Tucker Woods––Emergency Department System Director at CarePoint Health, which owns Bayonne Medical Center, Christ Hospital (Jersey City), and Hoboken University Medical Center in New Jersey––said that CarePoint is already prepared for the Zika virus to some extent because of preparations it made in response to recent international alarm over the spread of the Ebola virus and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

“For better or for worse, we have a lot of experience with diseases coming from travelers,” he said.

Woods added that CarePoint has a procedure in place if pregnant women say they have recently traveled to a Zika-affected country. “If they have symptoms consistent with Zika virus during or within two weeks of travel, then we would coordinate the test for the virus with the CDC,” he said. “If they don't have symptoms, [they would] get serial ultrasounds.”

There is no vaccine to prevent infection or medications to treat a Zika infection, according to the CDC.

Woods said that CarePoint is also planning a series of “training and exercises” to deal with potential Zika infections, and that it’s keeping doctors and nurses informed about the virus.

“We've been doing email blasts to staff,” he said, adding that the issue is discussed during emergency department huddles and staff meetings.

Sources: FierceHealthcare; February 4, 2016; and New Jersey On-Line; February 3, 2016.