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Medical staff trains on how to prepare for patients with infectious diseases

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Some of the hospital staff that led the charge in caring for Ebola patients are in Eastern Iowa to help other medical staff.

Biocontainment Unit staff from the University of Nebraska Medical Center were on hand at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics Tuesday, to talk about their work and assist in training staff who are volunteering to learn how to handle highly-infectious diseases like Ebola.

During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, UNMC was one of the few hospitals equipped to deal with infected patients. In that time, they saw three patients. One of the three died from the disease. Although hospital staffs do not anticipate dealing with the disease again, they're equipped to handle other pathogens.

UIHC started their Special Isolation Unit work in August 2014 and, by February 2015, it was verified by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"So, now, we're an Ebola treatment center, and we can also treat other special pathogens that come along," UIHC Emergency Manager, Mike Hartley, said.

On Tuesday, nine volunteers from the UIHC medical staff underwent SIU training, that was assisted by UNMC staff, on how to properly put on and remove personal protective equipment or "PPE," which has to be worn by staff when entering the isolation units. PPE's include a surgical gown, a protective face shield and helmet, and three layers of gloves and medical boots.

Staff members will be the first to say that putting all of the gear on is the easy part; it's what comes after that is the difficult part. The suits are worn for several hours at once.  Understandably, they can become hot, and they're more difficult to do work in.

Paige Burtness is a staff nurse at the UIHC's Surgical Neurology Intensive Care Unit, and was one of the nine volunteers that underwent the training session.

"It's definitely going to be a challenge, but it's another challenge that we're able to push our skills a little bit more," Burtness said.

The most important part of the training are the steps that have to be taken to remove the PPE's after using them. The process is extensive, involving 55 steps.

"Those that have been contaminated with a special pathogen and got infected, it's been during the portion where they take their PPE off.  So we really take a lot of time meticulously teaching people how to take their gear off," Hartley said.

Volunteers, like Burtness, understand the severity of the precautionary steps with, not only the risk in contaminating themselves, but others.

"It's for a very good reason. You're dealing with communicable diseases, such as Ebola. You will need to take every single precaution possible," Burtness said.

Since the UIHC's Special Isolation Unit has been up and running, they haven't yet had to treat a patient, but periodic training for when the time comes is still a priority, Hartley said. The hospital doesn't expect another Ebola outbreak to trigger it's use, but they are currently focusing on a viral respiratory illness, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Hartley said five people in Iowa have been tested for it so far, but all were negative.

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