As COVID-19 spread from country to country, hospitals scrambled to address potential cases. At UCLA, members of the Emerging Infectious Disease Program were on alert as well. The program was created five years ago within the Division of Infectious Diseases to focus on managing outbreaks such as COVID-19.
Anytime there is an outbreak of an infectious disease such as measles, tuberculosis, SARS or, now, COVID-19, the infectious-diseases team takes action, informing physicians and staff of UCLA Health about the situation, coordinating with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and staying on top of the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They ensure that there are appropriate supplies of medical equipment and protective gear and that proper cleaning and disinfection protocols are followed.
“When something new comes along, it really does ramp up everyone’s work,” says Daniel Z. Uslan, MD, co-chief infection prevention officer for UCLA Health. “Part of the challenge for us is that each of these events tends to be different. We are constantly checking and inquiring to get clarity.”
The team builds on the knowledge it gains from each event to bolster its response for the next one. “As we learn from each of these events, we have a better understanding of what we need to do to prepare,” says Annabelle de St. Maurice, MD, co-chief infection prevention officer.
Last summer, the infectious-diseases team helped UCLA to address an outbreak of measles in Los Angeles County. Fortunately, the team already had been circulating emails about measles for years, educating doctors on how to identify the rash and how to treat patients. Their constant preparedness made UCLA’s response swift and effective. “We’ve really recognized the importance of ongoing readiness,” Dr. Uslan says.
Another instance was the 2013 outbreak of MERS, which originated in Saudi Arabia. Like COVID-19, MERS was an entirely new respiratory disease. Fortunately, UCLA already had an emergency plan for SARS, a virus with a similar mode of transmission that occurred 10 years earlier, and the team was able to build on that to create a plan for MERS. When Ebola came to a hospital in Dallas, Texas, in 2014, UCLA’s infectious- diseases team again kicked into gear. That hospital had not been prepared — no one really was expecting Ebola to travel from West Africa to the United States. “We knew that we probably never will get an Ebola patient here, but if we do, we need to be ready to deliver the best possible care and protect our employees and citizens,” Dr. Uslan says.
This year, hospitals worldwide have been tested by the COVID-19 outbreak. The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. Because the signs of COVID-19 infection can be similar to flu, it is recommended that people contact their primary care physician if they are experiencing these symptoms, particularly if symptoms are severe, if the person has traveled internationally in the last month or if the person has been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Public health authorities will determine if a patient should be tested.