U.S. officials have designated 35 hospitals around the country to care for Ebola patients, part of the Obama administration’s effort in the past two months to improve domestic preparedness to cope with the deadly virus that has ravaged West Africa.
The hospitals were chosen by state health officials and hospital executives and assessed by infection-control teams from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make sure they have adequate staff, equipment, training and resources to provide the extensive treatment necessary to care for an Ebola patient, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
“Because we’ve stepped up our efforts in recent months, we’re more prepared when it comes to protecting Americans here at home,” President Obama told scientists at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., referring to the hospital network and other initiatives, including increased training of health-care workers, lab testing capacity and promising clinical trial results for an NIH-backed Ebola vaccine. He also thanked doctors at the NIH clinical center, which treated one of the U.S. Ebola patients.
But he said the fight against Ebola “is not even close to being over.”
“We can’t let down our guard even for minute,” he said. “We can’t just fight this epidemic, we have to extinguish it.”
Nearly two dozen hospitals are near the five international airports — John F. Kennedy in New York; Newark Liberty; Washington Dulles; O’Hare in Chicago and Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta — that travelers from Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Mali are required to use when arriving in the United States.
They include Bellevue Hospital Center in New York; Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J.; Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore; MedStar Washington Hospital Center, George Washington University Hospital and Children’s National Medical Center in the District; the University of Virginia Medical Center and Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Virginia; Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago; and Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
Other hospitals are in communities that are home to many West African immigrants, including Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas, Minneapolis and San Francisco. They include Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center in California and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. The 35 designated hospitals will have a total treatment capacity of 53 beds.
In trying to establish a network of hospitals, U.S. officials have encountered reluctance from facilities worried about steep costs, unwanted attention and the possibility of scaring away other patients. The reticence, although perhaps not surprising, complicates government efforts to ensure that the country can effectively treat people with Ebola and contain possible outbreaks.
Until October, only a few facilities in the United States with special bio-containment units, which are ideal for treating Ebola, were able to care for patients. And they could handle only two or three patients at a time. The case of Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who was initially misdiagnosed at a Dallas hospital and died Oct. 8, shows how easily a community hospital can stumble.
The Obama administration’s $6.2 billion emergency funding request for Ebola, which includes $154 million for hospital preparedness and support, envisions at least one designated facility in every state, and additional hospitals in New York, the District, Chicago, Los Angeles and Puerto Rico. Obama called on Congress to approve the request by Dec. 11, when current government funding runs out.
“We cannot beat Ebola without more funding,” Obama said, referring to efforts to fight the disease in West Africa and strengthen capacity at home. “It’s a good Christmas present to the American people and to the world.”
Virtually every initiative underway requires immediate, additional funding, officials said. In addition to the 35 hospitals that have been designated, officials want to establish at least 20 more facilities over the next several weeks, according to a senior administration official. When that can be done will depend on how quickly Congress approves the emergency request.
All but a handful of the designated hospitals are major teaching hospitals, many of which handle the most complex cases. The infection-control measures at these hospitals “also will help strengthen preparedness for future unknown threats,” said a spokeswoman for the Association of American Medical Colleges. Included in the 35 are the three hospitals with special isolation units — Emory University Hospital, Nebraska Medical Center and NIH — where the majority of Ebola cases, including those medically evacuated from overseas, have been treated.
On an average day, there are a total of 50 to 70 travelers arriving from the affected countries at all five airports, officials have said. Ten people have been treated for Ebola in the United States, and federal officials say the number of future cases is likely to be extremely small — in large part because airport screening and follow-up monitoring allows health authorities to spot possible cases and refer them to hospitals for treatment before they infect others.
Last week, NIH researchers announced the completion of an early-stage human trial for an Ebola vaccine, which is being developed in collaboration with European drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline. The results, which show that the vaccine triggered an immune response and did not cause harm in a small group of volunteers, paved the way for large-scale trials that could begin as soon as next month in West Africa. Based on a chimpanzee cold virus called chimp adenovirus type 3, the vaccine is designed to deliver pieces of genetic material from two Ebola species: Sudan and Zaire, the type responsible for the current epidemic in West Africa.
“No potential Ebola vaccine has ever made it this far,” Obama said. “So this is exciting news.”
Meanwhile, early clinical trials of another potential vaccine are underway at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and at NIH, with initial results expected by the end of the year. That vaccine was initially developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada and is being tested and manufactured by Iowa-based NewLink Genetics and pharmaceutical company Merck. It could head into larger trials next year. In addition, Johnson & Johnson recently announced that it also would team with NIH and commit up to $200 million to accelerate the development of its own Ebola vaccine, with the goal of producing 250,000 doses by May.
Brady Dennis contributed to this report.