Ebola is sometimes called the "caregivers disease." It's transmitted by bodily fluids that people can come in contact with when caring for an infected person. Nurses and healthcare workers are particularly at risk, and both here in Massachusetts and across the country, they're advocating for increased education in dealing with Ebola.
They say the issue of training has taken on even greater urgency since Monday’s announcement that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have revised their recommended guidelines for handling the virus.
So, unions are mobilizing their own training.
Much of the training healthcare providers have been doing has been targeted to workers most likely to come into contact with Ebola. But Service Employees International Union Local 1199 and other unions think all healthcare workers need training and education. As a first step, the unions teamed up to live-stream a gathering in New York City where national experts explained the changes. SEIU says many of its 50,000 Massachusetts members were watching. About a dozen came in to the union headquarters in Dorchester and scribbled notes as the CDC’s Arjun Srinivasan spoke on large multiple screens in front of them.
"Yesterday the CDC released new guidance for providing safe care of patients who are hospitalized with Ebola," Srinivasan said. "This new guidance reflects a tremendous amount of new information that we have. It reflects what we have learned from taking care of the first patients with Ebola, who have been cared for in hospitals in this country."
Among the new procedures: The CDC is recommending health care workers wipe their hands down with an alcohol solution even while they’re still wearing gloves, to reduce the chance of infection as they take the gloves off. Protective equipment should cover all skin surfaces. And a trained observer should watch people suiting up to treat infected patients.
A live demonstration of a health-care worker and observer going through the procedure of getting ready was painstaking.
"It’s key to take your time," Srinivasan said. "There’s a lot going on here, obviously, but you’ll notice that they’re not rushing.”
Kilra Hilton of Dorchester, like many in the audience, muttered questions and comments as the demonstration took place.
“How long does that take, like 20 minutes?” she asked.
Hilton’s a personal-care attendant for an elderly woman — not a nurse. But she still thinks she should be prepared to deal with Ebola.
"My patient goes to the hospital three times a week," Hilton said. "So what if she contracts something there? I just want to be prepared on my end, regardless of what I may face."
But education is one thing; actually having the equipment to protect herself is another. Hilton isn’t sure how she’d get everything the CDC recommends.
"I’ve started writing everything down," she said. "I'm going to find out. Even if somebody doesn’t give it to us — they're at the medical supply stores, you know.”
Another personal care attendant, Lisa Ivey of Randolph, says sometimes she doesn’t even have gloves to wear while helping a patient because some healthcare organizations say they can’t afford them.
"It’s a necessity," she said. "And for me, if I know my consumer doesn’t have it, and I don’t have the cash to go purchase it, then I can’t work.”
The Boston Public Health Commission says there have been a handful of suspected Ebola cases in the area in the last two weeks. They all turned out to be false alarms. Nurses at the SEIU headquarters for the training say their hospitals asked them not to speak to the media about anything Ebola related. But SEIU 1199 spokesman Jeff Hall says employers have been cooperative.
"In Boston we’ve seen some very positive responses from our employers," Hall said. "There are hundreds of hours of training of the healthcare workforce happening at some of our major employers. These trainings are not meant to raise alarm but they're meant to raise awareness and preparedness among the frontline healthcare workforce."
Those trainings will likely continue because, according to the new CDC guidelines, healthcare workers should have their Ebola education reinforced regularly and repeatedly.