St. Patrick Hospital Ebola ward

Dr. George Risi, an infectious disease specialist, shows one of St. Patrick Hospital’s three rooms that are equipped to handle infectious diseases like Ebola on Monday. St. Patrick has had the isolation wing of its intensive care unit since 2007, and is one of four facilities in the United States set up to care for patients with Ebola.

St. Patrick Hospital officials stand ready to treat an Ebola patient if one shows up in Missoula, but they are not willing to be part of the national network of medical facilities accepting infected victims from overseas.

A list of 35 U.S. treatment centers currently approved for Ebola patients published Tuesday did not include St. Patrick Hospital, although it was one of the nation’s original four facilities with that designation. On Wednesday, St. Patrick administrators said that original designation was a mistake.

"When the first Ebola patient arrived on U.S. soil, the media coverage was intense, and many things were reported inaccurately," St. Patrick spokeswoman JoAnn Hoven said in a written statement Wednesday. "Among them was a published 'short' list of national facilities equipped to treat infected Ebola patients, and we were surprised to find ourselves on it based on our specialized unit."

St. Patrick Hospital has had a special wing of its intensive care unit prepared for treating highly infectious disease patients since 2007. The facility was built as part of a contract with the federal Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, where researchers have been working on Ebola for years.

Last summer, St. Pat’s intensive care nursing director Kate Hurley accompanied Missoula infectious disease specialist Dr. George Risi to work in a Sierra Leone Ebola clinic. St. Patrick officials gave media tours of the isolation unit in September after the first American Ebola patient was brought back from Africa.

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Hoven acknowledged St. Patrick has a contract with the National Institutes of Health to care for any Rocky Mountain Labs employee sickened by a variety of diseases, including Ebola. The RML facility in Hamilton has a Biosafety Level 4 lab – the highest danger level for medical research. After a group of Bitterroot Valley residents sued NIH in 2002, the federal agency agreed to build a Care and Isolation Unit. St. Patrick was the sole bidder and completed the three-bed wing in 2007.

"Nothing in the contract indicates that by having a CIU, St. Pat’s would serve as a component of a national emergency response network," Hoven wrote. "St. Patrick Hospital is contractually obligated and fully prepared to take an employee of the Rocky Mountain Lab in event of an occupational exposure to Ebola or other infectious diseases. Further, given our capabilities, we stand ready to take and fully treat a patient from the communities we serve in the event it is deemed appropriate to do so by all parties involved."

No Montana hospitals are on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list published Tuesday.

"In addition, in order to respond to the national situation, we have engaged in numerous interactions with state and federal agencies regarding the unique challenges of accepting and treating an active Ebola patient in a rural setting," Hoven wrote. "Since that time, the CDC has developed new guidelines for identifying designated facilities to treat patients. In summary, more than 80 percent of returning travelers from Ebola-stricken countries live within 200 miles of these 35 Ebola treatment centers. Because of the active monitoring program of returning travelers from countries were Ebola is present, federal health officials have a clear sense of where travelers from affected countries in West Africa are going and where Ebola treatment centers are most likely to be needed. The priority areas are jurisdictions served by the five international airports screening returning travelers for Ebola, cities with high proportion of returning travelers from West Africa, and cities with large populations of individuals from West Africa."

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The decision came as a surprise to Montana Nurses Association Executive Director Vicky Byrd. The union represents about 430 registered nurses at the hospital.

“That is truly news to us at the office,” Byrd said Wednesday. “We had been talking with the nurses there to make sure they were doing the training and getting the resources they need. Thus far, it’s been going very well.”

Two nurses at a Dallas hospital got infected with Ebola after an African traveler arrived with the disease and died there. Both nurses survived, but the hospital was not prepared to treat Ebola victims and made several mistakes in protecting its staff.

The CDC reported a total of 17,111 people infected with Ebola in Africa and 6,055 deaths as of Wednesday. The countries with the most exposure are Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in west Africa. Nigeria and Senegal appear to have Ebola outbreaks under control, while Mali has had eight cases and the United States four.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.