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Ebola case in US: How will hospital handle it?

A patient with the Ebola virus, who is fighting to stay alive, will soon be brought to the United States for treatment, in an operation requiring a specially equipped aircraft and a sophisticated isolation unit at the Atlanta hospital where treatment will occur.

Emory University Hospital said Thursday that it was preparing to receive an Ebola patient "within the next several days." Two Americans involved in the fight against the disease in Liberia, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, are known to have contracted serious cases of Ebola, but it's unclear whether one of them is the Atlanta-bound patient.

A picture taken on June 28, 2014 shows a member of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) putting on protective gear at the isolation ward of the Donka Hospital in Conakry, where people infected with the Ebola virus are being treated.
Cellou Binani | AFP | Getty Images
A picture taken on June 28, 2014 shows a member of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) putting on protective gear at the isolation ward of the Donka Hospital in Conakry, where people infected with the Ebola virus are being treated.

The Samaritan's Purse charity, which Brantly works with, said in a statement Thursday that both were in stable but grave condition. Writebol, 59, was given an "experimental serum" — but there was just enough for one dose and Brantly, 33, asked that she get it, Samaritan's Purse said.

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Here's what we know so far about what will happen next.

How soon will this Ebola patient arrive and how will they get here?

Emory University Hospital said in a statement that it's uncertain precisely when the patient will arrive at its isolation unit in Atlanta, beyond "within the next several days." An aircraft with special gear to contain the virus and provide care in-flight will carry the patient to Atlanta. The CDC, which has its headquarters in Atlanta, has long experience in the transport of people with infectious diseases. A State Department spokesman said, "The CDC has devised plans and equipment to do it safely. Patients were evacuated in similar ways during the SARS outbreak in 2003 and in cases involving drug resistant tuberculosis in 2007."

What special precautions are being taken to contain the virus at Emory?

The hospital says the special isolation unit was developed in collaboration with the CDC. It's physically separate from other patient areas with "equipment and infrastructure that provide an extraordinarily high level of clinical isolation." The hospital says staff train regularly throughout the year "in the specific and unique protocols and procedures necessary to treat and care for this type of patient."

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Is there any danger to the public?

The hospital in Atlanta says its isolation unit is built to contain just such diseases as this. And health professionals say Ebola isn't as easily spread as the common cold or flu. "It really requires exposure to blood and bodily fluids," said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and senior associate at the UPMC Center for Health Security. He said Lassa fever, another lethal hemorrhagic disease, has been brought to the U.S. eight times with no secondary infections. And CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden expressed confidence in the ability to contain Ebola if it were to arrive here. "Ebola poses little risk to the U.S. general population," he said.

How many of these units exist in the US?

The statement from Emery University Hospital said it's one of four facilities in the United States that have special isolation units capable of handling cases of viral hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola. It didn't name the others or describe what sets them apart from other medical isolation units.

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There is a special isolation unit at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Md. The unit, nicknamed "the slammer," has airtight gaskets on doors to isolate it from adjacent areas, according to a report on the response to a case of possible Ebola exposure in a lab there. However, as the health professionals noted, Ebola is spread through contact with blood and bodily fluids, not through the air.

The Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha has a special isolation unit with 10 beds, according to the center website, and safety features that include "special air handling systems to ensure that micro-organisms do not spread beyond the patient rooms, with high level filtration and ultraviolet light for additional protection." Among the diseases it's equipped for: SARS, smallpox, plague, multidrug resistant tuberculosis and Ebola.

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St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, Mont., has a unit developed under contract with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to care for any workers exposed during research at its Rocky Mountain Laboratories about 50 miles away in Hamilton.

So have these units been used to isolate patients with other diseases?

In 2004, a researcher at the Army research institute was thought to have been exposed to Ebola virus while testing it in mice and was quarantined in the special isolation unit there. The researcher did not contract the disease.

— By Gil Aegerter, NBC News

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