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Doctors say it's "extraordinarily unlikely" that a patient at Primary Children's Hospital has Ebola, but the scare gave the hospital a chance to test its ability to respond to the deadly virus.
Still, the hospital's trial run of its emergency protocols and the way the case was publicized left some Utahns angry.
"This was a good test of our system," epidemiologist Andrew Pavia said Thursday at a news conference at the hospital, which drew a large number of photographers and reporters on short notice and prompted fear about an Ebola outbreak in Utah.
Danielle Johansen, 38-year-old graduate student at Utah State University and a mother of three from Park City, said Thursday she would hope health officials tread carefully when talking about Ebola.
She has three children ages 3, 12 and 14, and the older ones "see what's on the news. They read CNN. They're fearful anyways," Johansen said.
"It's like that never-cry-wolf thing," she said. "If it does happen, people need to take it seriously."
State medical leaders said they were caught between a growing social media rumor mill and the 24-hour news cycle.
Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the hospital, said the general population has nothing to fear and wouldn't even if the Primary Children's patient had the disease.
"We're incredibly confident we could provide safe, effective care for a patient with Ebola if we had to see one," Pavia said.
Ebola is contagious when symptoms are present, and is spread only by close contact with bodily fluids such as blood, sweat or saliva. It cannot be spread through the air or casual contact, he said. Symptoms include fever above 101.5 degrees, severe headache, muscle pain, weakness, diarrhea and vomiting, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
"The possibility that somebody comes back to any state with Ebola is real," Pavia said. "That should not make people nervous."
The hospital and others in Utah are prepared, he said a sentiment echoed by Utah and Salt Lake County health department officials at Thursday's press conference.
Primary Children's has been working for several months on an emergency plan that provides "the maximum protection to staff, patients, families, and the greater community in the event we do have a patient with an Ebola infection in the future," a news release said.
The hospital handled the patient's care as if it were Ebola, Pavia said, because the interval between travel to Africa and appearance of Ebola-like symptoms was consistent with the deadly virus.
The patient was admitted Wedneday evening, but soon, "an alternative diagnosis became clear," said Pavia. "We knew enough to say Ebola was extraordinarily unlikely."
The hospital sent samples to the Centers for Disease Control on Thursday morning to confirm the patient is not infected with Ebola. Hospital spokeswoman Bonnie Midget said it's not clear how soon the results will be available.
The hospital would not disclose details about the patient, such as their name, gender, age or whether he or she might have attended school after returning from Africa. The family requested privacy, Midget said. While Primary Children's generally treats patients up to 21 years old, it occasionally has older patients.
The hospital's decision to call a news conference to announce a likely false alarm did not go over well with some.
But Tom Hudachko, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Health, defended the decision.
Primary Children's was responding to rumors and reporters' questions about an Ebola case in Utah, he said.
Moreover, several hundred hospital employees were advised Thursday morning about the patient's case, and they likely would spread the news, Hudachko said.
A TV crew had parked outside the hospital well before the press conference was called.
"You want to be out ahead of rumors and bad information," Hudachko said. "It's just good communications to be transparent and share what you know."
Twitter: @KristenMoulton @AnnieBKnox