What’s needed to improve health sector resilience to serious infectious diseases? We asked people who responded to Ebola in four U.S. cities

In December 2013, what would become the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded began in Guinea. The virus was transmitted from village to village and across country borders within West Africa, eventually reaching the United States in August 2014 in a limited fashion when two American health workers who had contracted the disease in Liberia were brought back to the U.S. for treatment.

Over the course of the domestic Ebola response, 11 people—including those two health workers—were treated for Ebola at five different health facilities across the country. Four of these facilities—the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit (NBU) at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) in Omaha, the Serious Communicable Diseases Unit (SCDU) at Emory University in Atlanta, the Special Clinical Studies Unit at the National Institute for Health (NIH) in Bethesda, and the Special Pathogens Unit at NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue—had designated units for treating patients with high-consequence pathogens, as well as staff trained in the use of specialized personnel protective equipment (PPE). The fifth facility—Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas—treated the first domestically identified case of Ebola, a traveler from Liberia, and was the only facility that did not have an advanced treatment unit.

Additionally, numerous other healthcare facilities in the U.S. encountered individuals who had been in close proximity to someone with Ebola, or who had recently traveled to areas where it was being actively transmitted, illustrating the need for the entire health sector – hospitals, private practices, public health clinics and others - to be prepared to manage a high consequence infectious disease (HCID) event.

Everyone involved in the domestic Ebola response—including physicians, nurses, public health personnel, emergency medical services, emergency management, academics, media personnel, state and local government, and law enforcement—faced unique challenges and circumstances. Our Center, with support from the CDC, set out to gather lessons learned from this event, and help inform future responses to HCIDs such as Ebola.

After soliciting feedback and recommendations from 73 key informants who were intimately involved in the domestic Ebola response, we published “Health Sector Resilience Checklist for High-Consequence Infectious Diseases.” This checklist provides actionable recommendations and highlights topics that may need to be addressed during the response to a future HCID event. It is our hope that, by using this tool, state and local health sector leadership can help “improve the overall resiliency of their health sector and community to HCID events.”

Much of the research completed at the Center entails conducting semi-structured interviews—like was done for this research project—to gather lessons learned and important anecdotes that may benefit future public health endeavors. Our Center has a history of conducting this kind of work. Past examples include:

Our methodology typically involves identifying and interviewing those involved in public health  response efforts, documenting their experiences, and soliciting feedback/recommendations on a range of given topics that the Center regards as integral to health security and public health preparedness. These interviews are then analyzed qualitatively, focusing on common themes and recommendations conveyed by study participants. We find this methodological approach to be extremely important (and surprisingly under-utilized), as it helps improve preparedness and response efforts by providing insight and recommendations on how to overcome challenges that are all but guaranteed to arise during future responses.

For example, in the course of conducting research for our project on health sector resilience to HCIDs, participants revealed challenges that had likely not been considered by state and local health sector leadership. One common theme that arose at health facilities treating Ebola-infected individuals and persons under investigation was the resource-intensive nature of caring for these patients, particularly in terms of nursing coverage, which led to staff shortages throughout the facility. While facilities had anticipated that additional personnel would be needed, the requisite 21-day monitoring period for those who had taken care of infected patients led to protracted staff shortages, with those involved in the response not able to return to their home units even after patient care had ended. Additionally, hospitals that treated PUIs noted that these patients required nearly identical isolation and infection control precautions as confirmed Ebola patients, as the uncertainty about their infection status raised concerns about the risk they posed to clinicians and other patients.

Our hope is that this checklist will familiarize health sector leadership and personnel with the challenges experienced during the domestic Ebola response and improve future epidemic and pandemic response, thereby enhancing the resiliency of communities across the US to these types of events.