ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Today marks a year since Thomas Eric Duncan became the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. He later died. Two nurses who cared for him were infected, and they survived. Hospitals across the country have been taking a harder look at their plans to treat patients with highly infectious diseases. Carrie Feibel of Houston Public Media reports on a hospital that's preparing to take on some of those who are most susceptible - children.
CARRIE FEIBEL, BYLINE: Four months after Duncan died of Ebola, the CDC designated 55 hospitals nationwide as future Ebola treatment centers. Most of the hospitals doubled down on training or renovated treatment rooms. But Texas Children's decided to do more. On its campus in suburban Houston, they're building an entirely new unit with one wing designed for highly infectious diseases.
JUDITH CAMPBELL: After the case in Dallas a year ago, we knew there would be a need.
FEIBEL: Dr. Judith Campbell handles infection control at Texas Children's. She helped design the isolation unit which has a total of eight beds behind locked doors.
CAMPBELL: A year ago in the United States, there were only 12 beds for patients that had a need to be isolated in a biocontainment unit. And not surprisingly, zero of those beds were designated for children.
FEIBEL: Each of the eight patient rooms has an anti-chamber where doctors and nurses will put on protective gear, gloves and ventilated hoods. After treating the child, they will leave through a separate door and enter a third room where they strip the equipment off. The whole time, nurses will observe through large, glass windows.
CAMPBELL: So if there's any question, they can say wait; you need to clean your hands again or wait; stop; let's take this glove off a little bit more carefully.
FEIBEL: The unit has its own laboratory, a separate waste treatment area and a locker room where medical workers will shower after every shift. And while Ebola was the catalyst, the unit is designed for any globetrotting superbug.
CAMPBELL: TB, MERS, pandemic influenza, bird flu and even a pathogen that we might not know what it is yet.
FEIBEL: Dr. Amy Arrington is an intensive care pediatrician who helped design the unit. She says the medical architecture is impressive, but none of it will work without properly trained people.
AMY ARRINGTON: I describe it as a spacesuit. So it's a full body suit that has footies and armholes, covers you up completely.
FEIBEL: Arrington says everyone got three days of required training and mock drills, much of it inside that suit.
ARRINGTON: When you put three pairs of gloves on, you really lose that tactile feel that, as physicians and nurses, is really important in taking care of any patient, let alone a child.
FEIBEL: As pediatricians and parents know, sick children need close monitoring. They need encouragement to eat and drink and comfort when they are scared and confused. And that's the drawback to a pediatric biocontainment room. The parents of a very sick child will probably not be allowed inside. But Campbell says Texas Children's Hospital is ready for that challenge. At least six doctors or nurses will be assigned to each child, and one of them will act as a family liaison. The kids can also use tablets and video chat to talk with their families and see them through the large windows. And the hospital is developing a special doll, one that will wear the same biocontainment suit as the doctors and nurses.
CAMPBELL: So that when the healthcare providers come in, they understand that, you know, yes, we're dressed up a little bit differently but that their little doll has similar attire on.
FEIBEL: The pediatric isolation unit was paid for out of capital funds and some donations and will open in late October. For NPR News, I'm Carrie Feibel in Houston.
SIEGEL: And that story is part of a reporting partnership of NPR, Houston Public Media and Kaiser Health News.