Amid growing fears that Ebola will spread in the United States, some local and regional public health officials are working with hotels and convention centers to establish protocols for dealing with a guest who may be infected with the virus.
Government officials and medical experts emphasize that the risk to the general public is extremely low. But out of an abundance of caution, local agencies such as the Southern Nevada Health District, the government agency that oversees Las Vegas, are coordinating protocol with member resorts and casinos.
SNHD met with its members twice last week to discuss specific guidelines and procedures, such as requiring housekeeping staff to use rubber gloves when handling soiled linens, public information officer Jennifer Sizemore said.
“There is definitely a heightened awareness, because [members] want to be responsible and have the information they need to best serve their staff, and make sure they’re well equipped to provide the best service but also keep their employees safe,” Sizemore said.
Up until now, Ebola’s impact on the travel industry has focused on airlines and locating travelers who may be infected with the virus, after a Dallas nurse who had been in contact with an infected patient flew on two domestic flights after possibly becoming symptomatic.
In addition, a worker from the Dallas hospital who was one of the original group of health care workers identified for monitoring was quarantined aboard a Carnival Cruise Lines ship in the Caribbean last week. The cruise was cut short after the ship was refused clearance to dock in Cozumel, Mexico. It returned to Texas on Sunday, and the hospital worker was allowed to disembark with the other passengers after tests for the Ebola virus proved negative.
Hotels and other businesses in the travel and hospitality industry have been tight-lipped about their preparedness efforts – hardly surprising, since airline stocks plummeted when news broke of the nurse taking two domestic flights.
“The knee-jerk reaction to these types of situations is very negative, and there’s a fearful response from the public,” said Katherine Harmon, health intelligence director at iJet International, which specializes in risk-management solutions for multinational corporations and governments.
“And for the hotel industry to say ‘we’re taking Ebola precautions’ is to essentially say that ‘we’re worried about having Ebola at our property.’ It’s bad marketing for them to just sort of throw out there what they are doing for preparations.”
In a statement to FoxNews.com, the Washington, D.C.-based American Hotel and Lodging Association said it will “continue to monitor the situation very closely and [is] in close contact with government and health officials regarding the latest developments and guidance … we are sharing resources and information on Ebola, its symptoms and the measures our association members can take to be better prepared.”
The AHLA did not elaborate on specific measures or information. But hotel guests should keep in mind that most larger hotel chains already have robust protocols in place – especially those with properties in foreign destinations like Asia, where they have had to contend with other disease outbreaks, like avian flu.
“They are better prepared than a lot of people would think,” said Harmon, who’s also a physician’s assistant. “The trick is to have the surveillance in place. If they have a guest who’s not feeling well, what do they do?”
Standard operating procedures at most hotels, such as using very hot water and detergent with bleach to launder bed linens and towels, provide another line of defense. While the Ebola virus can survive for an undetermined amount of time on fomites – surfaces or objects that can carry infectious agents – the virus is killed by using bleach cleaning agents and in sunshine, Harmon said.
James Wilson, a pediatrician and expert on infectious disease who has spent time in Haiti and Africa studying infectious viruses, said hotels located in areas with large communities of people from west Africa might be at higher risk, as possibly infected people fleeing the hard-hit countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone would gravitate to such destinations.
Wilson added that “the whole crux of the matter for the hotel industry is the allowance of uninhibited access to this country by foreign nationals right now.”
In Dallas County, Texas, county commissioners last week restricted travel for health care workers who were exposed to the virus at Texas Presbyterian Hospital while caring for Thomas Duncan, who died Oct. 8.
No cancellations have been made by groups for meetings at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, a representative from the convention center said.