SPOKANE, Wash. - A ward at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center has been prepared to handle patients with highly-infectious diseases since its establishment, and now that time has come.
Sacred Heart was chosen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services back in 2015 to host a "special pathogens unit," one of 10 in the country. The ward for people with highly-infectious diseases could take patients from the region of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska in the event of an outbreak.
Two respiratory therapists, 33 nurses and several doctors and lab technicians have volunteered to work the unit if needed, but also remain assigned to regular hospital roles.
“The chances of seeing an Ebola patient are very slim, but the chances of us seeing a different patient are higher,” Christa Arguinchona, the assistant nurse manager for the unit, previously told our news partners at The Spokesman-Review.
Now, the special pathogens unit will be put to work, as five 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) patients are expected to be transferred to Sacred Heart within the next two days.
The Spokane Regional Health District and Department of Health has reiterated that the risk to the public from this transfer remains low, and they are following protocols this unit trains and prepares for.
Congress allocated funding to hospitals after the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Sacred Heart was the only applicant for the region, receiving $2.1 million over five years to construct the unit, train staff and run drills.
So if you're asking: Why Spokane? This is what Sacred Heart signed up for.
The Ebola outbreak killed thousands of people across West Africa, leading to some patients being treated at U.S. hospitals. Many hospitals could handle and prevent contagious diseases, but Ebola's risks called for the need of more resources concentrated in specific hospitals in the event of a similar outbreak.
Five patients will arrive at the 14,000-square foot unit at Sacred Heart in the near future. It is equipped to handle up to 10 patients with infectious diseases, but could only take up to two patients with an Ebola-type case due to resources needed for care. There are two critical care rooms available in the unit.
The unit is locked, requires an ID badge to enter, and has a negative airflow to prevent disease from spreading out. There is also a lab inside the unit so blood doesn't have to be transported outside the unit.
All staff are required to wear personal protective equipment inside the unit, and will have assistants to help them dress and undress.
“There’s drills regularly to ensure that the personal protective equipment is worn properly, is put on properly, is taken off properly,” said Dr. Joel McCullough, Sacred Heart’s medical director of community health and epidemiology.
Sacred Heart is equipped to handle both adult and children cases in the unit, and benefits from having Fairchild Air Force Base nearby in the event a patient needed to be airlifted without disrupting commercial flights.
An online portal is used for employees involved in patient care in order to monitor for any possible symptoms, updated every 12 hours.
When not being used for infectious diseases, the unit can host overflow patients from other parts of the hospital, but they aim to keep patients in there short-term so they can't be moved out.
Sacred Heart would always have the final say about whether they can receive a patient, and while they originally had hoped to never have to use the unit, the time has indeed arrived.
Arguinchona felt the idea of treating an Ebola patient was scary at the time, but the preparations of the unit have since increased her confidence and removed that fear.