NEW YORK (AP) — When two U.S. aid workers infected with Ebola arrive in Atlanta from Africa, they will be whisked into one of the most sophisticated hospital isolation units in the country.
The specialized unit at Emory University Hospital was opened a dozen years ago to care for federal health workers exposed to some of the world’s most dangerous germs.
Now it’s being pressed into service for the two seriously ill Americans who worked at a hospital in Liberia, one of the three West Africa countries hit by the largest Ebola outbreak in history.
One of the aid workers is due to arrive Saturday, and the second a few days later, according to officials at the hospital. They are traveling in a private jet outfitted with a special, portable tent designed for patients with highly infectious diseases.
It will be the first time anyone infected with Ebola is brought into the country. U.S. officials are confident they can be treated without putting the public in any danger.
The Emory hospital unit is located just down a hill from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is one of about four such units around the country for testing and treating people infected with dangerous, infectious germs.
The unit has its own laboratory equipment so samples don’t have to be sent to the main hospital lab. Located on the ground floor, it’s carefully separated from other patient areas, said Dr. Eileen Farnon, a Temple University doctor who formerly worked at the CDC and led teams investigating past Ebola outbreaks in Africa.
The two Americans – Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol – worked for U.S. aid groups Samaritan’s Purse and SIM at a Liberian hospital that treated Ebola patients. Late last week, the North Carolina-based Samaritan’s Purse said Brantly, 33, had been diagnosed with Ebola. Then, Writebol’s infection was disclosed.
The government is working to ensure that any Ebola-related evacuations “are carried out safely, thereby protecting the patient and the American public,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement released Friday.
A Department of Defense spokesman said Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Georgia, will be used for the transfer. Samaritan’s Purse is paying for the trip.
Ebola is considered one of the world’s deadliest diseases. The current outbreak in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone has sickened more than 1,300 people and killed more than 700 this year.
The virus is spread through direct contact with blood, urine, saliva and other bodily fluids from an infected person. It is not spread through the air so it is not as infectious as a germ like the flu.
The Americans will travel on a Gulfstream jet fitted with a collapsible, clear tent built to transfer CDC employees exposed to contagious diseases. The CDC said the private jet can only accommodate one patient at a time.
An Emory emergency medical team in Liberia has evaluated the two aid workers, and deemed both stable enough for the trip to Atlanta, said Emory’s Dr. Bruce Ribner. Hospital spokesman Vincent Dollard said the first patient was scheduled to arrive Saturday.
“If there’s any modern therapy that can be done,” such as better monitoring of fluids, electrolytes and vital signs, workers will be able to do it better in this safe environment, said Dr. Philip Brachman, an Emory University public health specialist who for many years headed the CDC’s disease detectives program.
“That’s all we can do for such a patient. We can make them feel comfortable” and let the body try to beat back the virus, he said.
There’s no specific treatment for Ebola so doctors try to ease the symptoms, which include fever, headache, vomiting and diarrhea. Some cases suffer severe bleeding.
Emory’s Ribner, one of the doctors who will be seeing the Ebola patients, stressed that safety precautions will be taken by staff.
“I have no concerns about even my personal health or the health of the other health care workers who will be working in that area,” Ribner said.
Medical Writer Marilynn Marchione in Milwaukee, National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington and video journalist Johnny Clark and writer Ray Henry in Atlanta contributed to this report.