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After exposure incident, Sentara implements safety procedures for overdose patients

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) -- Sentara Healthcare is working to improve communication between their hospitals and first responders before overdose victims reach the emergency room with the goal of eliminating contamination.

Patti Montes, who oversees emergency management, has directed EMS teams across the region to alert hospitals sooner about patients who have come in contact with suspicious substances.

"Is there the presence of powder? What are the patient's symptoms? What did the environment look like where the patient was found?"

On March 1, five employees and three first responders fell ill after treating an overdose patient who had an unknown white powder on his body at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital (SNGH). The situation led to an intense decontamination of the ambulance and emergency department.

"We actually had to shut down the Level 1 trauma center for the eastern region of Virginia," said Montes. "The more information we have, the better we can react in the most appropriate way."

Bruce Nedelka, a division chief with Virginia Beach EMS, says emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics have been told to be on high alert.

"Our people are more aware and in tune with what's possibly out there as a hazard," said Nedelka.

In the past, he says it's possible first responders didn't relay information about unknown substances to the hospital before arriving. That has changed in the past three weeks.

"It shouldn't be a surprise," Nedelka said. "It should be something that is communicated from the field so that it's not a surprise to the physicians and the hospital staff."

At the ER, Montes says only "high or perhaps moderate risk patients" will be rinsed off in a special decontamination room before entering the main hospital.

She says the decontamination takes about five minutes, but the patients are able to receive treatment during the process.

"We need to take care of that patient that has a need and at the same time protect our staff and patients who are already in the building," Montes said.

Montes says all 12 hospitals in the Sentara network have implemented the new procedures. A "working group," comprised of hospital staff, EMS and hazmat teams, has been meeting twice a week since the incident to streamline the process.

"We are really just starting to feel this in our region, because we've been somewhat sheltered," she said. "I do expect we will be doing more decon than we have in the past."

 

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