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Ebola Teams Train To Respond To New U.S. Cases At A Moment's Notice


Health care officials at every level of government went on high alert after two nurses in Dallas contracted Ebola. And now with another confirmed case of a doctor with Ebola in New York City, the president, some states and the CDC have all called for Ebola SWAT teams, able to respond at a moment's notice. NPR's Caitlin Dickerson has this report.

MAJOR HEATHER DANLEY: Who are my doctors in the group?

CAITLIN DICKERSON, BYLINE: At Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Major Heather Danley is speaking to a group of 30 experts in infectious disease huddled around her. Most of them are military. A few are civilians. The Department of Defense established the group to respond to cases of Ebola in the U.S. They're in Texas for weeklong training.

DANLEY: Just to give you a little bit of orientation, this mannequin can do anything.

DICKERSON: The group members each have a 12-page list of basic medical tasks - maintain airway, start IV fluids, maintain heart and lung function. They perform each task wearing cumbersome gear that protects against contagious bodily fluids. Once their masks are in place, the instructor has each person read a block of text about rainbows. You'll see why.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There is, according to legend, a boiling pot of gold at one end. People will look, but no one ever finds it.

DICKERSON: While this woman is reading, her instructor sprays an artificial sweetener out of a bottle from about three inches away. If the woman notices a sweet taste inside her mask or feels like there's something in her throat, the seal has been broken.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Did you feel anything like that?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, but I tasted it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You tasted it?


DICKERSON: If she were treating a real Ebola patient, this would mean she's at risk for contracting the disease. Colonel JJ Degoes is command surgeon of the United States Northern Command. Degoes says that in addition to mastering these highly specific standards for infection control, this training is also psychological.

COLONEL JJ DEGOES: A disease which has known by scientists to have a mortality rate of up to 60 to 90 percent, just knowing that one is going to treat those patients is stressful. And so we want to have resilient medics that are well-trained to go into a stressful environment.

DICKERSON: Degoes says his team can be on the ground within 72 hours of an Ebola diagnosis. If they're deployed, they can expect to run into at least one other Ebola SWAT team, one that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put together.

JOHN T. BROOKS: My name is John T. Brooks. I'm a medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control.

DICKERSON: Brooks is leading the CDC's Medical Care and Countermeasures Task Force against Ebola. His SWAT team plans to arrive within 24 hours of any new case.

BROOKS: The minute we know that a person has Ebola virus, we're going to be talking to that hospital over the phone and begin helping them.

DICKERSON: Brooks says after what happened in Dallas, where two nurses contracted Ebola in the hospital, his team won't waste any time reacting to a diagnosis or even a strong suspicion of the disease. Their first assignment came last week when the 33-year-old doctor was admitted to a hospital in New York City for Ebola. Brooks's team arrived that night. He says the CDC's protocol for responding to Ebola is still evolving.

BROOKS: You can never say never, and life is full of risk. But the purpose of guidelines is to try and reduce things to the lowest risk possible, according to the knowledge that we have now and based on biological plausibility of what could possibly happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All right. Who's next?

DICKERSON: Back at Fort Sam Houston, the military response team is preparing for orders to ship out. A handful of states have also come up with their own Ebola SWAT teams.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I got my hood OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Nope, it's sticking out still.

DICKERSON: But it's not yet clear how all these teams will work together. None of them have a plan that includes the other. Caitlin Dickerson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Caitlin Dickerson is an NPR News Investigative Reporter. She tackles long-term reporting projects that reveal hidden truths about the world, and contributes to breaking news coverage on NPR's flagship programs. Her work has been honored with some of the highest awards in broadcast journalism, including a George Foster Peabody Award and an Edward R. Murrow Award. In 2015, Dickerson was also a finalist for the Livingston Award.