Not long after we learned that a health care worker treating Thomas Duncan has tested positive for Ebola, I ran across this terse tweet from Mackey Dunn, the pen name of Don Weiss, who is “a medical epidemiologist with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene”. The tweet linked to this short but incredibly important blog post. In the post, Weiss notes the baffling development that a health care worker, who wore full personal protective equipment (PPE), contracted Ebola from Duncan even though at this point, none of his family or other close contacts, who did not have full PPE, have developed symptoms of the disease.
That set of facts prompts Weiss to pose the question “So, what does this tell us about Ebola and how we can attain control?” His answer begins:
One, that Ebola patients become more infectious as the illness progresses. The newly reported case in a healthcare worker had onset on October 10th. If we take 9 days as the mean incubation period for Ebola this means the healthcare worker’s exposure was sometime around October 1, which was day 8 of Mr. Duncan’s illness. This is similar to what was seen with SARS, that patients become more infectious (and dangerous) with time.
In setting up the circumstances for his question, Weiss had noted that Duncan was hospitalized, ending exposure to family members, on day 5 of his disease.
Although he doesn’t mention it, this aspect of Ebola, where patients produce more virus and become more infectious during the course of a fatal infection, also accounts for why burial practices are so important to containing the spread of Ebola. Patients produce the most virus and are thus at their most infectious at death.
The converse also appears to be true. Duncan was symptom-free when he flew from Liberia to Dallas on September 19 to 20. At 24 days since the end of that trip, we have now passed the incubation period, commonly given as 2-21 days, for Ebola to develop in anyone who could have been exposed during the flights. No infections among those airline passengers have been reported. I have yet to see a major media outlet mention this point, though.
We are now at 16 days since Duncan was hospitalized, ending his family’s direct exposure, so we have passed the two-thirds point of the incubation period for them (and well past the 9 days that Weiss gives as the average incubation period for Ebola).
The second part of Weiss’ musings on the infection of the nurse is extremely important:
Second, that only hospitals that are well prepared to care for highly infectious patients should be allowed to do so. Standard practice is to have a staff person dedicated to observing the donning (putting on) and doffing (taking off) of PPE. This observation should continue throughout the period of clinical care (from an ante-room with a window). Perhaps gentle reminders during the doffing can avoid the presumed situation in Spain where the nurse may have touched her face with a gloved hand.
When a patient presents to a hospital early in the illness there is time to transfer to such a facility. That’s the plan here in NYC. Bellevue hospital has a specially equipped ward to care for Ebola patients. Their staff are well trained. The number of healthcare workers entering the room should be kept to a minimum, especially after day 7 of the illness.
Weiss was prescient in his push for an observer for workers putting on and taking off PPE. In today’s New York Times, we have this on the CDC’s thoughts regarding improving practices for health care workers treating Ebola patients: Read more