Texas' top health official said Thursday that most hospitals can't handle Ebola patients and that they should instead be treated at specialized care centers -- a break with past federal assertions that nearly any American hospital can cope with the virus.
During the first public hearing of a 17-member state task force created after Ebola killed a Liberian man visiting Dallas and infected two nurses treating him, members heard conflicting testimony from health experts about the merits of creating treatment centers specifically equipped for Ebola around Texas and the nation.
But Texas Health Commissioner David Lakey said, "I think this is the switch in strategy that has taken place because of this event."
"Prior to this event, the national strategy was that community hospitals would be able to care for individuals," Lakey said, "and I think our experience with individuals here shows that that strategy needs to change and that you really need to have some facility ready throughout the state of Texas and nationwide for these individuals to be sent to where folks are specifically trained for this."
Liberian visitor Thomas Eric Duncan died while in treatment at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, but the two nurses were eventually transferred to federal facilities. Since then, Texas' task force has designated two state hospitals as specialized Ebola centers and called for creating a "second layer" of regional hospitals to care for Ebola patients if both are full.
Lakey told a hearing at the Texas Capitol that the state's three cases taught Texas just how "resource intensive" treating Ebola is for regular hospitals, including the necessary protective and treatment equipment and having to assign four nurses to a single infected patient. He and other health experts also noted that having Ebola patients so strained Presbyterian Hospital and reduced the number of Texans will to going there for other care that it created a greater surge of patients at other Dallas hospitals.
As recently as Oct. 2, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention head Tom Frieden said "essentially any hospital in the country can take care of Ebola." But he's since admitted that federal authorities weren't aggressive enough in containing the virus at the Dallas hospital.
Lakey's comments came in response not to Frieden, but to Joseph McCormick, regional dean of the Brownsville campus of the University of Texas School of Public Health, who suggested that deeper training for more doctors and nurses statewide could be more effective than relying too heavily on a few Ebola specialty treatment centers.
Others testifying before the task force, though, complained of "communication issues" with federal health authorities.
"Not to throw stones, but the overall response from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been slow," said William Sutker, infectious disease chief for Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. He called for the creation of a 24-hour command center to share the latest Ebola information and training.
Created barely two weeks ago, the task force has already produced a series of initial recommendations, including calling for contingency plans like mobilizing Texas Guard troops during an Ebola outbreak.