Unalaska Clinic Shares Ebola Response Plans

Tuesday's meeting on the city's Ebola preparedness drew a standing room-only crowd to City Hall. (Annie Ropeik/KUCB)
Tuesday’s meeting on the city’s Ebola preparedness drew a standing room-only crowd to City Hall. (Annie Ropeik/KUCB)

Concerns about Ebola are running high in Unalaska. The town’s unique geography and large international workforce have residents wondering how they’d be affected by an outbreak. Local medical providers are trying to calm those fears.

Download Audio

It’s rare to see more than a handful of people turn out for a public meeting in Unalaska. But at the panel on Ebola preparedness, more than 75 people packed into City Hall. The standing room-only crowd wanted answers to questions like this:

“Walk through exactly what the process would be if Ebola hit here, now.” Ann Nora Ehret, the medical director at the local clinic, read the question off an index card. “Okay, so let’s say somebody called up one of the processing safety officers and said, ‘I have a fever and vomiting and diarrhea.’ Okay. So EMS gets called…”

Senior fire captain Zac Schasteen stepped in to answer for the city’s emergency medical volunteers:

“As it stands right now, if we had a call tonight, we could respond appropriately to it,” he said.

He said dispatchers would ask the caller about their symptoms and recent travel to try to assess the risk of Ebola. Paramedics would try to confirm that on-scene by looking for a fever above 101.5 degrees.

If they found one, responders would put on their full-body hazmat suits — Schasteen said they have gear and training in line with the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

He said responders would help get the patient into quarantine at the clinic, where a trained staff member would try to rule out other illnesses. But in the end, Ehret says the patient would have to be flown off the island for an official diagnosis.

The clinic’s gameplan is the result of conversations with state and federal health officials, Ehret said. The Coast Guard, commercial medevac companies, and the local tribal clinic have also been consulted.

As plans move forward, Ehret asked residents to be conscious of the stigma surrounding Ebola:

“We don’t want to make assumptions about someone’s skin color and label them with being a carrier of infection. So please keep that in mind,” she said. “And we’ll be doing some educational sessions, hopefully, in the bigger plants where they have a lot of people coming in together in a small area.”

She said she’s been keeping up with local processing companies on how they’re screening returning workers for signs of illness or risky travel.

Some, like Westward and Alyeska Seafoods, conduct physical examinations as they recruit for the next big processing season in January.

Meanwhile, Unalaska’s biggest processor, UniSea, is screening workers based on travel, too. But their human resources director says they don’t typically recruit workers from West Africa, where the outbreak is centered right now.

Then there’s American Seafoods, which runs off-shore processing operations in Unalaska. Ehret said they’ve asked employees who’ve been to an affected area to stay home for 30 days before coming to work.

“I know they’re doing screening in Seattle, and then they plan on also doing screening in Dutch Harbor,” she said.

Even if the risk of Ebola is low in Unalaska, Ehret said folks should make sure they’re staying healthy in other ways:

Meanwhile, she said folks should make sure they’re staying healthy in other ways:

“If you choose to get a flu shot, this would be a good year to get a flu shot,” she said, drawing a laugh from the audience.

And she said people should do their best to prevent the spread of illness. For its part, the clinic’s taking no chances: A sign posted on the front door last week tells patients with Ebola-like symptoms to stop outside and call for an escort into the building.