City Council approves additional funding for Ebola precautions

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The Austin City Council approved funding for an Ebola preparedness plan Thursday.
Photo Credit: Mariana Munoz | Daily Texan Staff

As the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department continues to monitor two individuals for signs of the Ebola virus, nearly seven months after the first American patient was diagnosed, the Austin City Council approved supplemental funding Thursday for Ebola preparedness.

The City Council accepted $183,906 from the Texas Department of State Health Services to fund public health preparedness planning and responsiveness for Ebola and other infectious diseases, according to Janet Pichette, chief epidemiologist at the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department.

“We receive public health preparedness dollars [every year], and this is extra money to help accelerate preparedness planning,” Pichette said.

The health department works with the University in times of emergency, such as last fall, when a UT student was monitored for Ebola after potentially being exposed. The department is the initiator of all emergency infectious disease response, said Bob Harkins, associate vice president for campus safety and security.

“In any infectious disease scenario, the lead and dictating agency ends up being Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services,” Harkins said. “For example, when Ebola situation erupted last fall, they notified us of the person.”

The University’s response protocol is the same for all infectious diseases, including the mumps case diagnosed in a student Wednesday, Harkins said.

“[The health department] usually talk about our responses and notifications and precautions and stuff,” Harkins said. “The UHS and the Healthy Horns’ side of the house are the ones that respond and pass information to the campus in terms of what we do.”

Public health junior Angela Yang said she thinks the public health information system at the University is adequate.

“I feel like UHS does a lot about general public health, and what things not to do and how to keep disease from spreading,” Yang said. “In the most recent case with mumps, there was only one case, but they sent out a mass email to everybody before it [got] out of hand.”

The department received $682,000 for the next fiscal year starting in July, in addition to the City Council-approved funding, Pichette said. The money will fund two temporary positions in the public health department for Ebola responsiveness.

“We pretty much have an idea of how to do it because of events in the fall,” Pichette said. “People don’t realize we continue to monitor people for 21 days after they come back from Ebola-impacted countries. Right now, we have two people in our community that we are monitoring twice a day.”

However, the health department is involved in much more than just responding to infectious disease emergencies, Pichette said. 

“There’s a lot that the people don’t realize the health department is involved in, and that’s okay,” Pichette said. “We’re doing our job; nothing’s happening, so you don’t hear about it. When something goes wrong, that’s when you hear about it.”

The funding will not impact the way the University responds to emergency situations, according to David Vander Straten, medical director of University Health Services. 

“We would [still] coordinate very closely with [the health department],” Straten said. “Our specific population would be the students. If there were concerns in terms of students traveling from countries [marked] by the [Center for Disease Control], we could be notified by the health and human services department.”