(Reuters) – U.S. hospitals may be unprepared to safely dispose of the infectious waste generated by any Ebola virus disease patient to arrive unannounced in the country, potentially putting the wider community at risk, biosafety experts said.
Waste management companies are refusing to haul away the soiled sheets and virus-spattered protective gear associated with treating the disease, citing federal guidelines that require Ebola-related waste to be handled in special packaging by people with hazardous materials training, infectious disease and biosafety experts told Reuters.
Many U.S. hospitals are unaware of the regulatory snafu, which experts say could threaten their ability to treat any person who develops Ebola in the U.S. after coming from an infected region. It can take as long as 21 days to develop Ebola symptoms after exposure.
The issue created problems for Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, the first institution to care for Ebola patients here. As Emory was treating two U.S. missionaries who were evacuated from West Africa in August, their waste hauler, Stericycle, initially refused to handle it. Stericycle declined comment.
Ebola symptoms can include copious amounts of vomiting and diarrhoea, and nurses and doctors at Emory donned full hazmat suits to protect themselves. Bags of waste quickly began to pile up.
“At its peak, we were up to 40 bags a day of medical waste, which took a huge tax on our waste management system,” Emory’s Dr. Aneesh Mehta told colleagues at a medical meeting earlier this month.
Emory sent staff to Home Depot to buy as many 32-gallon rubber waste containers with lids that they could get their hands on. Emory kept the waste in a special containment area for six days until its Atlanta neighbor, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, helped broker an agreement with Stericycle.
While U.S. hospitals may be prepared clinically to care for a patient with Ebola, Emory’s experience shows that logistically they are far from ready, biosafety experts said.