While the COVID-19 outbreak is a shock to the healthcare system, investigators have been working to prepare for just such an emerging pathogen since the Ebola crisis in 2014.

The work of the National Ebola Training and Education Center, which was set up by the government in the wake of that crisis, has been supplemented by the Special Pathogens Research Network, a group of 10 hospitals or treatment centers that have been focused on developing the policies and protocols needed to respond to an outbreak like COVID-19.

As one of the medical centers in this network, Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) has been deeply involved in this work. Paul Biddinger, MD, chief of the division of emergency preparedness and director of the Center for Disaster Medicine at MGH, leads the hospital’s efforts in this regard. “We have been planning and developing protocols for how you hospitalize someone who needs this kind of isolation,” he noted during a March 13 webinar. “In late January, as [the outbreak] was advancing, we were able to leverage a lot of that work from our program into a toolkit ... that has been sent out nationally and internationally.”

Biddinger stressed one of the most important lessons learned during the Ebola crisis was just how important it is to put on and remove PPE correctly. “How you take off your PPE is maybe one of the most important things that any healthcare organization can focus on,” he said. “We have a very tight sequence [we learned from the Ebola crisis] for how you take off your PPE.”

When this process is not performed correctly, a healthcare worker can become exposed and potentially infected. For example, if a worker has removed respiratory protection already, and then takes off the gown or suit, small droplets can inadvertently enter the air, and a worker could breathe them in, Biddinger explained. “We are trying to get the word out to anyone who is actually donning and doffing PPE how important being methodical and being careful [when] doffing is going to be for personal protection,” he reported.

The “2019 Novel Coronavirus Toolkit” can be accessed through the website operated by the Center for Disaster Medicine, which is a division that lives within the department of emergency medicine at MGH, by clicking here.