The hospital stressed in a statement that it does not have a confirmed case of Ebola, which has killed more than 4,000 people since the outbreak started in West Africa at the beginning of the year.
The patient is being held at the request of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in consultation with federal health officials, according to MMC infectious disease specialist Dr. August Valenti.
“I am very confident at this point that this is not going to turn out to be a case of Ebola,” he said in an interview with the Bangor Daily News. “We’re just trying to be as cautious as possible.”
The patient will remain at MMC throughout the incubation period for Ebola, he said, which lasts up to 21 days.
MMC also took precautions about a month ago when treating another patient, who ultimately tested negative for the virus, Valenti said. That case served as an exercise to further prepare the hospital in the event of a potential case of Ebola, he said.
Maine CDC Director Dr. Sheila Pinette stressed the patient is being held as a precautionary step. She said she was not aware of any other patients under observation in Maine in connection with Ebola.
“We’re doing what’s in the best interests of the people of Maine. We’re making sure that the patient completes the incubation period,” she said.
She declined to disclose any other details, citing federal patient privacy laws.
The patient under observation arrived at Maine Medical Center’s emergency room Sunday, Valenti said. The individual has been isolated, and the hospital is following policies developed by the World Health Organization, which exceed the Ebola guidance issued by the federal CDC, he said.
“Our emergency room really stepped up to the plate,” Valenti said.
Contracting the Ebola virus requires close contact with the infected person’s bodily fluids, such as blood, vomit, feces or urine. While the virus is far less transmissible than other viruses, such as SARS or the avian flu, it’s deadly, killing at least about 60 percent of infected individuals.
Even a small slip-up can expose a nurse or doctor treating an Ebola patient to the virus.
MMC is limiting the number of health care workers involved in the patient’s treatment, allowing only essential staff who have been specially trained in the isolation precautions, Valenti said. Doctors and nurses interacting with the patient must wear protective apparel that exceeds federal CDC recommendations, Valenti said, including impervious suits, gloves, face protection and, in some cases, personal respirators worn inside a protective hood, he said.
The hospital also has instituted a buddy system for when health care workers put on and later remove protective gowning, to avoid the kind of protocol breach officials suspect may have led to the infection of a Texas nurse with Ebola, he said.
MMC continues to train staff in the protocols the hospital has adopted, particularly workers on the front lines of care, including ambulance personnel, Valenti said.
“I’d be extraordinarily upset if somebody became accidentally infected,” Valenti said. “I feel terrible about this nurse in Dallas. Everybody is blaming her, which I think is terribly inappropriate. This woman put her life on the line to take care of the patient.”
MMC issued the statement just hours after U.S. CDC Director Tom Frieden stressed in a news conference that all hospitals must be prepared to diagnose Ebola in patients who have traveled to West Africa and isolate suspected cases.
The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is the worst in recorded history. Health officials have said the risk of an outbreak in the U.S. is very low.
Frieden also apologized for his comments Sunday, when health officials first disclosed the Dallas nurse’s infection, which suggested she was responsible for the breach in safety protocols.
The woman, identified as Nina Pham, treated a dying Liberian man stricken with Ebola at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. She is the first person confirmed to have contracted the virus in the United States. Health officials said she wore protective clothing and took precautions but somehow still became infected.
Frieden said health officials are re-examining the recommended protocols, particularly ones concerning the removal of protective gear after contact with an Ebola patient.
“We have to rethink the way we address Ebola infection control,” he said at the Monday news conference. “Even a single infection is unacceptable.”
Symptoms of Ebola appear two to 21 days after exposure to the virus, according to the U.S. CDC. Early symptoms include fever, severe headache, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain and unexplained bleeding.
A spokeswoman for Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, the parent organization to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and seven other hospitals, confirmed none of its hospitals placed patients under observation in connection with Ebola.
“We are planning. We are prepared. We are educating,” EMHS spokeswoman Suzanne Spruce wrote in an email.