UPMC’s Infectious Disease Unit Debuts Following Ebola Drill

By: Allison Hydzik


Though Ebola has been out of the headlines, UPMC remains vigilant against it and other infectious disease threats. The health system’s efforts received an added boost last week following a full-scale drill to test the capabilities of its new Infectious Disease Unit (IDU).

About a dozen county, state and federal health officials observed as UPMC practiced a scenario involving a child and adult suspected of having Ebola.

“The key to emergency preparedness is practice, practice, practice,” said Bill Smith, director of emergency preparedness at UPMC. “Following last week’s drill, I’m confident that our staff and facilities are capable of safely caring for someone with a disease as contagious as Ebola, without putting any patients, visitors or clinicians at risk.”

The recent drill was designed to allow clinicians to physically work through how to put on and take off protective equipment, contain potentially contagious bodily fluids, and communicate with their coworkers – all while caring for a very sick patient.

The scenario, organized by Knox Walk, director of business continuity and preparedness operations at UPMC, played out in a cordoned off section of UPMC Presbyterian Hospital’s Emergency Department, where a trained actor arrived playing an adult with suspected Ebola. The drill then transitioned to the recently completed IDU at UPMC Montefiore Hospital, where a 12-year-old played by a medical simulation mannequin was already receiving care.

Normally the IDU is used as a regular intensive care unit, caring for UPMC’s sickest patients. But, when it becomes necessary to care for a patient with a highly contagious disease, the unit can be cleared and quickly transformed into a specialized unit with two isolation hospital rooms, a laboratory capable of performing diagnostic tests, and separate rooms where clinicians can don and doff protective uniforms and equipment.

The rooms have many vantage points where trained observers can watch the patient and clinicians without exposing themselves to the contagion. This allows the observer to be an extra set of eyes and instruction for the clinicians. It also has telemedicine capabilities, meaning that specialists can consult remotely on the patient’s care.

The IDU itself – paid for by both UPMC and a five-year federal grant administered by the state – is only one part of UPMC’s ongoing efforts to be fully prepared for a highly contagious disease. Dozens of doctors, nurses and environmental services staff have gone through extensive training on how to care for a person with Ebola or another such disease, while keeping themselves and their coworkers safe.

“UPMC’s staff really stepped up when we put out the call for volunteers to receive this kind of training,” said Eric Poach, emergency preparedness training coordinator at UPMC. “It’s not the easiest training – you are learning a 20-step process just to put on and remove your protective equipment – but our staff didn’t shy away. They know that it’s a necessary part of being able to provide care to any patient in need.”

The county, state and federal health officials who observed the drill in a “collaborative consultation” offered mostly praise in their constructive feedback. The visit was not meant to give any official designation to the unit, but rather continue an open dialogue to help the rarely needed unit function as well as possible in an emergency.

Caption: UPMC Nurses and Clinicians, from left to right: Erin Klopfer, BSN, Natalie Liggett, BSN, Justin Bailey, BSN, and Paula Kramer treat an actor portraying a patient with suspected Ebola during a practice drill in UPMC’s new Infectious Disease Unit. Credit: Max Leake/WISER