Ebola waste disposal has proven a thorny issue: CDC

By Sharon Begley
A soiled bandage is disposed of into a bio-hazard waste container in a 2004 archive photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. REUTERS/CDC/Jim Gathany/Handout via Reuters

By Sharon Begley

(Reuters) - Handling medical waste generated by an Ebola patient proved to be one of the contingencies that U.S. hospitals were unprepared for, a top U.S. health official said on Saturday, adding that it "took longer than we would have wished" to fix the problem.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) thought the disposal issue was resolved on Sept. 26, just two days before the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the United States was admitted to a Dallas hospital after initially being turned away.

"But it wasn't," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of CDC told reporters at a news conference.

In short, conflicting classifications on Ebola waste forced the hospital to wait for the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue a special permit before it could move the material.

The permit finally came through on Friday, allowing Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, which is caring for patient Thomas Duncan to transport and dispose of medical waste such as vomit and diarrhea generated during his stay.

While waiting, the Dallas hospital has held the waste at the unit where Duncan is in isolation, said Dr. David Lakey, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services.

County officials have contracted with a disposal company that has received approval to transport the waste, Lakey said on Saturday, but is waiting until after the weekend to remove the items from the hospital.

Conflicting U.S. regulations on transporting such waste caused officials to scramble even before the Dallas Ebola case.

Few U.S. hospitals are equipped with incinerators or large sterilizers called autoclaves needed to safely handle soiled linens, contaminated syringes and virus-spattered protective gear generated from the care of an Ebola patient. The waste needs to be treated before it can travel over public roads.

The CDC advises hospitals to treat items infected with the Ebola virus in leak-proof containers and discard them as they would other regulated medical waste.

However, the Transportation Department classifies Ebola as a Category A infectious agent, meaning it is capable of killing people, rather than as regulated medical waste, which includes non-lethal pathogens.

(Reporting by Sharon Begley in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Andre Grenon)