Ebola-ailing doctor quarantined in Atlanta hospital special unit

Posted: August 3, 2014 at 3:59 a.m.

An ambulance arrives Saturday at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta with Dr. Kent Brantly (right). Brantly, who was infected with the Ebola virus in Africa, was being moved to what officials said is one of the most sophisticated isolation units in the nation.

ATLANTA -- The first person infected with Ebola to be brought to the United States from Africa was safely escorted into a specialized isolation unit Saturday, where doctors said they are confident that the deadly virus won't escape.

The jet carrying Dr. Kent Brantly landed at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Ga.

With news helicopters flying overhead, a police-escorted ambulance carrying Brantly arrived less than 90 minutes later at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, which has a containment unit for patients with dangerous infectious diseases. The unit was built more than a decade ago with consultation from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has its headquarters nearby.

Not long after the ambulance pulled into a service entrance at Emory, television footage recorded from helicopters showed Brantly, dressed in protective gear, walking into the hospital with assistance. The ambulance left the hospital, its driver wearing a white hazardous materials suit.

Security was tight at the hospital: Ahead of Brantly's admission, law enforcement officers were posted around the building, and a police canine unit conducted an inspection.

Although Emory, citing health privacy laws, declined to identify the patient, the Christian aid organization Samaritan's Purse said it was Brantly. He and the second infected U.S. aid worker, Nancy Writebol, were treating patients suffering from Ebola at a hospital in Liberia, one of four West African countries hit by the worst outbreak of the virus in history.

Samaritan's Purse said Writebol would return to the United States "within the next few days" for treatment at Emory. There was room on the plane for only one patient at a time.

Dr. Jay Varkey, an infectious disease specialist who will be treating Brantly and Writebol, gave no word Saturday about their conditions.

At a news conference Friday, Dr. Bruce Ribner, an infectious disease specialist at Emory who will be involved in caring for the two, said, "The reason we are bringing these patients back to our facility is because we feel they deserve to have the highest level of care offered for their treatment."

Both patients will receive what Ribner described as "supportive care" focused on maintaining their vital functions, such as blood pressure and breathing.

"We depend on the body's defenses to control the virus," he said. "We just have to keep the patient alive long enough in order for the body to control this infection."

Ribner said Emory would have a robust roster of medical workers handling the care of Brantly and Writebol, including four infectious-disease doctors, a rotating cast of nurses and, as needed, subspecialists.

Dr. Alexander Isakov, the executive director of Emory's Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response, said the staff in the containment unit had volunteered to work there and that some who were supposed to be on vacation had offered to cancel their plans to take care of the new patients.

Fear that the outbreak killing more than 700 people in Africa could spread in the U.S. has generated considerable anxiety among some Americans.

The CDC has received "nasty emails" and at least 100 calls from people saying, "How dare you bring Ebola into the country!?" CDC Director Tom Frieden said Saturday.

Frieden said the patients posed little risk to others.

"These are American citizens," he said. "American citizens have a right of return. I certainly hope people's fear doesn't trump their compassion."

Ribner was among those who dismissed rising fears, often appearing online, that the arrivals would spread the infection here.

"From the time the air ambulance arrives in the metropolitan Atlanta area, up to and including being hospitalized at Emory University Hospital," he said, "we have taken every precaution that we know and that our colleagues at the CDC know to ensure that there is no spread of this virus pathogen."

The nature of Ebola -- which is spread by close contact with bodily fluids and blood -- means that any modern hospital using standard, rigorous, infection-control measures should be able to handle it, officials say.

Still, Emory won't be taking any chances.

"Nothing comes out of this unit until it is noninfectious," Ribner said. "The bottom line is: We have an inordinate amount of safety associated with the care of this patient. And we do not believe that any health care worker, any other patient or any visitor to our facility is in any way at risk of acquiring this infection."

Brantly and Writebol will be in a unit that is small and positioned far away from other patients at the sprawling hospital. They will have limited contact with visitors, Ribner said, communicating with nonmedical personnel through telephones and an intercom system.

"Negative air pressure" means air flows in but can't escape until filters scrub any germs from patients. All laboratory testing is conducted within the unit, and workers are highly trained in infection control. Glass walls enable staff members outside to safely observe patients, and there's a vestibule where workers suit up before entering. Any gear is safely disposed of or decontaminated.

Isakov said the unit had been used only three to five times since it was built, in each case for patients suspected of having serious diseases but who turned out not to have those illnesses. This is the first time the unit will house patients who are infected with a dangerous disease.

Although the State Department said it had been involved in facilitating the evacuations from Liberia, Emory said that Samaritan's Purse was paying for the transportation and care of the workers. Ribner said Emory officials had communicated with state and county regulators about the patients but that the air ambulance service, the Phoenix Air Group, had been responsible for securing the necessary clearances to bring the two to the United States.

Amber Brantly was heartened to see her husband climb out of the ambulance that met his plane.

"It was a relief to welcome Kent home today. I spoke with him, and he is glad to be back in the U.S.," she said in a statement. "I am thankful to God for his safe transport and for giving him the strength to walk into the hospital."

Before going to Liberia, Brantly completed a four-year residency at the hospital.

There is no cure for the virus, which causes hemorrhagic fever that kills as many as 80 percent of the people it infects in Africa.

There are experimental treatments, but the missionary hospital had only enough for one person, and Brantly insisted that Writebol receive it. His best hope in Africa was a transfusion of blood including antibodies from one of his patients, a 14-year-old boy who survived because of the doctor's efforts.

Information for this article was contributed by Alan Blinder and Denise Grady of The New York Times; and by Ray Henry, Mike Stobbe, Marilynn Marchione, Ron Harris, Alex Sanz and staff members of The Associated Press.

A Section on 08/03/2014