AP IMPACT: If Ebola Batters US, We Are Not Ready

Ready for "Ebola sparks"? Not so much in the US.

The U.S. health care apparatus is so unprepared and short on resources to deal with the deadly Ebola virus that even small clusters of cases could overwhelm parts of the system, according to an Associated Press review of readiness at hospitals and other components of the emergency medical network.

Without any stress caused by Ebola cases, the emergency care system in the U.S. is already overextended. In its 2014 national report card, the American College of Emergency Physicians gives the country a D-plus grade in emergency care, asserting the system is in "near-crisis," overwhelmed even by the usual demands of care.

According to data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, patients spend an average of 4 1/2 hours in emergency rooms of U.S. hospitals before being admitted. The data also show that 2 percent of patients leave before even being seen.

In a CDC study on hospital preparedness for emergency response in 2008, the latest data available, at least a third of hospitals had to divert ambulances because their emergency rooms were at capacity.

Add an influx of people with Ebola, along with those who fear they might have the disease, and the most vulnerable segments of the health care system could wobble.

How big of an outbreak would it take to overpower the U.S. health care system?

"It would have to be only a mediocre outbreak," said Gostin. "The hospitals will be flooded with the 'worried-well.' People with influenza or other infections that are not Ebola could jam up the public health system."

One federal study on emergency room visits indicated that at least 4 percent of visits involved patients with fever — a common symptom of Ebola. Combining fevers with stomach pain, headaches and coughs, about a fifth of emergency visits involve symptoms often seen in Ebola patients. [emphasis mine]

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