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Q&A: Testing for and treating Ebola in Minnesota

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A colorized transmission electron micrograph
In this handout from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), a colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of a Ebola virus virion is seen.
Courtesy of Center for Disease Control / Getty Images

A Minnesota man has tested negative for the Ebola virus. State public health officials announced today that they tested the man yesterday, even though he did not meet federal guidelines for Ebola testing.

Lorna Benson explain why the man's illness raised suspicions about Ebola.

Full Ebola coverage from MPR News

Why did the Minnesota Department of Health test this person?

The man had returned recently from a trip to Ghana, where he had been visiting a friend. Ghana is not experiencing an Ebola outbreak, but it is very close to other West African countries where the virus is circulating widely. During his trip, the man often traveled by bus and ate a lot of local food, including possibly bush meat, according to Kris Ehresmann, director of the Minnesota Department of Health's infectious disease division. He was also showing some symptoms that raised concern.

Health department officials knew the case didn't fit the testing protocol for potential Ebola cases, but said it made them feel better to test the man.

Ehresmann described the case as an "excellent experience," because the man tested negative and Ehresmann's agency got a chance to puts its own protocol for dealing with a possible case to the test.

Is anyone else being tested for Ebola right now?

No. There are no patients in Minnesota at the moment who are suspected of having the virus. No one is in isolation.

Ed Ehlinger
Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger, right, speaks to reporters about Minnesota's ebola prevention and response efforts during a news conference on Friday, Oct. 17, 2014.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Did the health department say whether it will deviate from the testing guidelines again?

They may do that. Dr. Ed Ehlinger, the state's commissioner of health, said this case is an example of how aggressive and diligent he and his colleagues are being right now to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.

Ehlinger also talked about using "centers of excellence" to treat possible Ebola patients. Will those centers be located here in Minnesota?

The health department has asked all hospitals to be ready to identify and isolate a possible Ebola patient.

But after a patient has been identified, he or she would likely be transferred to a hospital that could better handle the ongoing care required — which is what officials are calling "centers of excellence." That's because the risk of caring for these patients increases as their illness progresses. They become much more infectious, so you need a team that is trained and ready to handle that kind of situation.

When will those hospitals be identified?

It's not clear.

Hospital leaders are expected to talk with the governor about this idea Saturday. Ehlinger says hospitals have made this a top priority, and they will be identifying and setting up their centers as quickly as they can. But it will take a lot of coordination and likely more resources.

What if there is an Ebola case in Minnesota before this is decided?

In that case, the state would see if the patient could be sent to one of the four national centers that are prepared to care for advanced Ebola patients.

It's not clear, though, if any of these centers would be able to admit more Ebola patients. For example, the National Institutes of Health hospital in Maryland has only two Ebola beds — one of which is already occupied by one of the Texas nurses who has tested positive for the disease.

But there are other hospitals in Nebraska, Montana and Georgia that have been designated as centers for Ebola care. Of course, every state in the nation has a similar concern. So it just may depend on whether additional cases develop slowly or quickly.