While federal public health authorities have assured Canadians that there is very little risk of an Ebola outbreak, hospitals across the country are training staff and reinforcing protocols should an infected patient walk through their doors.
The deadly virus is still ravaging four West African nations, where as many as 20,000 people may become infected, according to the World Health Organization. Canada's deputy chief public health officer, Gregory Taylor, stated earlier this month that the risk to Canadians is "very low," and said Public Health Agency of Canada has specific infection-control guidelines to assist help health-care providers.
On Thursday, Toronto East General Hospital held the first of a series of Ebola preparedness workshops for staff, walking them through a protocol for identifying patients who may be at-risk of having contracted the disease. It also outlined the guidelines for treating infected patients. Individuals who have travelled to affected countries, have a high fever and are vomiting or bleeding are considered at the highest risk for Ebola. The workshop was based on PHAC guidelines and designed through consultation with other hospitals, according to Barley Chironda, East General's senior infection prevention and control practitioner.
"This hospital dealt with a lot of SARS cases," Mr. Chironda said. "As a result, for our staff, they're really anxious because everyone remembers SARS. It's paramount for us to really show that we're pro-staff and we're really out to make sure that they're safe."
At the workshop, staff practised donning and doffing safety gear, including full-body protective jumpsuits, face guards and specially fitted masks. Because Ebola is spread through bodily fluids, health-care professionals have to cover head-to-toe if treating an infected patient in order to prevent the spread, Mr. Chironda explained. The patient must also be quarantined and special caution must be taken when doing tests and blood work in order to prevent contaminating equipment.
"Ebola strikes more fear in the hearts of everyone, including health-care workers, than just about anything else, and given what's going on in Africa, that's not entirely unreasonable," said Dick Zoutman, an infectious-disease expert at Queen's University and the chief of staff for the Quinte Health Care network in Hastings and Prince Edward counties in Ontario. "But it's certainly nothing to panic over."
He said the steps needed to ensure health-care workers are safe when treating a patient infected with Ebola are routine, but it helps for hospitals to do reminders so workers feel comfortable and confident.
In Hamilton, two hospitals have plans for a practice run through Ebola protocols in the fall. And in Vancouver, health authorities have alerted medical staff and reminded them of the PHAC guidelines, according to Gavin Wilson, director of public affairs for VPH.
"But no special training has occurred, nor do we believe it is necessary," Mr. Wilson said.
Alberta's ministry of health released an advisory for medical staff about Ebola, breaking down the details of the disease and step-by-step guidelines for identifying at-risk patients and treating them.
Regardless of how health networks go about it, be it through a simple e-mail or an hour-long practice session, Dr. Zoutman said it's important to make sure health-care practitioners across the country are informed and prepared.
"Knowledge is power. It prevents you from going into a panic mode and lets you do your job."
Meanwhile, PHAC released more details Thursday night about the return of three Canadian scientists who had been combatting the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. Three people in their hotel compound tested positive for Ebola. The trio is scheduled to be flown home on a private, chartered aircraft and would be assessed by a quarantine officer and officers from the Canada Border Services Agency when they landed.
"Once they are cleared by the Quarantine Officer as healthy, the team members will travel to private residences where they will voluntarily self-isolate for the remainder of the incubation period," a spokesman said by e-mail. "Voluntary self-isolation means that they will voluntarily avoid contact with their families and the community. During isolation, the team members' health will be monitored."
The scientists are so far showing no signs of illness and their risk of infection is very low. PHAC is refusing to release their names or when and where their flight will land.