With no treatment available, how can hospitals and health agencies prepare for Zika?

Focus now on monitoring virus, sharing accurate information with providers

As concern over the Zika virus grows in the United States, public health officials and providers are ramping up their efforts to understand and control the virus.

CDC has confirmed more than 30 cases of travel-associated Zika infections in the United States, as well as one case in Texas that officials believe was transmitted sexually. But as the weather warms in the northern hemisphere, experts expect that mosquito activity in the region will increase and that cases of the virus will grow—perhaps substantially.

While most people infected with Zika experience no symptoms, the virus is believed to be linked to microcephaly, a neurological disorder characterized by an abnormally small head and potentially fatal developmental issues in newborns. With no treatment and no vaccine for the Zika virus, providers in the United States are focusing on proper screening, risk reduction, and information sharing.

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Information sharing

CDC has released interim guidelines for pediatric and obstetrical health care providers, advised pregnant women to avoid a growing list of countries where Zika is active, and recommended that men returning from such regions use condoms.

The American Hospital Association (AHA) and the American Medical Association (AMA) both say they are working to disseminate CDC's guidelines and other best practices as widely as possible.

For instance, AMA has created a centralized web page, the Zika Virus Resource Center, to share information with clinicians. And AHA CMO John Combes says "hospitals are working closely with their local public health officials and with the CDC" to share information and monitor cases of Zika.

Local health departments are also reaching out to providers to make sure they monitor the virus and share accurate prevention information with patients. "Our primary guidance to health care providers is to be aware of Zika and consider it when they're seeing patients," says Chris Van Deusen, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

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Hospitals prepare

According to a spokesperson for the New Jersey Hospital Association (NJHA), providers in the state learned lessons from Ebola that they are using to prepare for Zika. NJHA is hosting webinars to educate providers on the virus.

Patricia LaFaro, director of infection prevention at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey, says the hospital does not expect a large number of Zika cases but is keeping doctors updated with regular emails. "It's really very much keeping everybody up to date with what's happening, what countries people who are pregnant should avoid, any testing and treatment modalities," LaFaro explains.

CarePoint Health in New Jersey is also planning to hold exercises to prepare staff.

Hospitals across the country are taking similar precautions, FierceHealthcare reports. But Sandra DiVarco, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery, says providers can take several additional steps providers to ensure they are ready for a major viral outbreak, such as:

  • Planning to address staff concerns related to the dangers of infection;
  • Updating staff on HIPAA compliance, so patient information is not inadvertently disclosed if the media asks about new cases;
  • Considering an internal task force to streamline communication and collaboration; and
  • " Avoid[ing] getting in over your head," by conducting an assessment of your resources and preparedness (Budryk, Fierce Healthcare, 2/4; Bryant, Healthcare Dive, 2/2; Lin, Jersey Journal,  2/3; Morse, Healthcare Finance News, 2/1).

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