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Is King County More Prepared For Ebola? Officials Say Yes

Ebola Dallas
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
Representatives of the North Texas Food Bank deliver food items to an apartment in Dallas Thursday. Dallas County officials have ordered family members who had contact with the patient diagnosed with the Ebola virus to stay inside their home.

A Liberian man is being treated for Ebola in Dallas, the first confirmed case of the disease in the US. Doctors in Dallas initially failed to recognize the virus when the man came in for treatment and released him with antibiotics.

He came into contact with friends and neighbors, including schoolchildren, before returning to the hospital with more serious symptoms.  Anyone the man came into physical contact with while symptomatic is being monitored for the next 21 days.

Dr. Jeff Duchin, the head of communicable disease control at King County Public Health, thinks it's a good lesson, and that in a similar situation, King County would be better prepared.

“It would not be surprising if at some point someone with Ebola came to King County,” Duchin said.

“I feel confident that we would be able to identify and isolate that person, to identify their contacts and to trace them, and make sure they're not ill, and give them the appropriate guidance if they become ill to minimize any risk of transmission.”

Duchin said he's confident because King County has been training for years to respond to other virally transmitted diseases, like pandemic influenza, SARS outbreaks and biological terrorism.

“All the types of capacities that you'd need for those things are very, very similar to what you'd need for Ebola. Basically, good communication, ability to identify and isolate patients, to do good contact tracing, and to have good infection control precautions in our regional health care facilities,” Duchin said.

But Duchin acknowledges that Ebola is different. The number of cases in West Africa, he said, is doubling every three weeks, and there may be a million cases by the end of the year.

“What's changed is that the Ebola virus infection, which used to be limited to very small areas in Africa, and did not spread out of the area where it exists in nature – in the jungle – is now potentially a disease that we're going to have to be aware of and prepared to deal with on a long-term basis,” Duchin said.

Seattle Lab Explores 'Cell Armor' For Ebola

One Seattle lab has been looking into how to combat the virus since before the current outbreak after receiving seed money from the federal government.

Adam Lacy-Hulbert is an associate member with the Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason on First Hill. Lacy-Hulbert said that his lab is working to answer a very general research question: the basic mechanisms of how viruses get into cells and what drugs could counter this process.

“I think what really changed the mood in the lab was when it became apparent that there was another outbreak,” Lacy-Hulbert said.  The wake-up call, he said, was realizing just how big the outbreak was. From there, the team tried to ramp up their efforts to target something that might make a difference.

While his team does not work with live Ebola – they use a harmless virus that is coated in the same proteins to make the body think it is Ebola – there are health research workers in the field that have been exposed to the disease and died.

“That again brings home that the human cost of this epidemic isn’t just the people who are dying from the virus, or the health workers caring for those people, but also the researchers who are inadvertently exposed to the virus,” Lacy-Hulbert said.