Did DeKalb threaten to shut off Emory’s sewer lines over Ebola concerns? County says no. (Update)

DeKalb spokesman disputes NYT report

Emory University Hospital last August landed in the international spotlight when it treated two U.S. citizens who had contracted Ebola while working in West Africa. The two patients, missionaries Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, safely recovered with the help of the hospital’s staff.

But according to the New York Times, local Atlanta businesses and DeKalb County officials weren’t exactly helpful in providing services to the hospital. Science reporter Denise Grady writes:

As doctors and nurses there worked to keep desperately ill patients alive in August, the county threatened to disconnect Emory from sewer lines if Ebola wastes went down the drain. The company that hauled medical trash to the incinerator refused to take anything used on an Ebola patient unless it was sterilized first. Couriers would not drive the patients’ blood samples a few blocks away for testing at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And pizza places would not deliver to staff members in any part of the hospital.

“It doesn’t matter how much you plan,” Dr. Bruce Ribner, an infectious disease specialist who directed the patients’ care, said in an interview. “You’re going to be wrong half the time.”

No pizza! Can’t people trying to save the lives of hardworking Americans at least get a couple of pepperoni slices? In all seriousness, Atlanta’s response to Ebola in its own backyard is important. It could suggest how difficult treatment might become throughout the United States if the virus were to spread here. Metro Atlanta response’s might also factor into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation on whether future Ebola patients should be treated at regular hospitals or one of four designated biocontainment centers in Georgia, Maryland, Nebraska, and Montana.

But county officials are disputing the NYT story. DeKalb spokesman Burke Brennan tells CL that county officials never threatened to disconnect Emory’s sewer lines. In addition, he says, county officials never even spoke with Emory about the issue.

“DeKalb County Watershed Management contacted the CDC in anticipation of fielding concerns from our constituents,” Brennan says. “The call was intended to ascertain what the proper procedures and protocols should be on our end. They advised us that they would be autoclaving and incinerating the waste. That satisfied our needs.”

Emory University spokeswoman Holly Korschun initially provided CL with the following statement: “Emory University Hospital has been treating patients with Ebola virus disease in its Serious Communicable Diseases Unit since August 2. During the early stages of this pioneering treatment of patients with Ebola virus disease in the United States, Emory established waste management protocols with local utilities and vendors, along with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”​

Ribner recently spoke about the hospital’s Ebola response, including the difficulties he says were presented by DeKalb officials, at a Philadelphia medical conference.

When asked for more information, Korschun said hospital and county officials did speak about waste management, in particular its use of a large autoclave to sterilize medical waste so that Emory’s waste management vendor could dispose of the hospital’s waste.

“However, Emory was mistaken in saying that DeKalb County threatened to disconnect it from the sewer line,” she says.

She also confirmed that blood sample couriers and at least one pizza vendor refused to work with the hospital, but those problems were quickly resolved.

Note: This story has been updated to include additional information provided by Emory University Hospital.