Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Special Pathogens Program at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center is preparing for the next pandemic

In the special pathogens unit at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, Darrell Ruby, playing an Ebola patient, talks with registered nurses Marnae Ferrin, left, and Sarah Emerson in full personal protective equipment during a media training demonstration and tour of the state-of-the-art isolation unit. The unit was one of the first places in the country that cared for people with COVID-19 in 2020.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

As the last of the COVID-19 public health emergencies come to an end, a special unit in Spokane is already preparing for the next pandemic.

The special pathogens unit at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Children’s Hospital regularly trains to treat the most dangerous infectious diseases, such as Ebola.

The unit treated some of the country’s first COVID-19 patients in February 2020.

When it was activated, the unit received four patients as part of an effort by federal agencies to repatriate U.S. citizens from countries affected by the virus, including passengers aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship which experienced an outbreak while it was at sea in the Pacific Ocean.

At the time, doctors did not know much about the new virus.

It was exactly what the pathogens unit had been training for.

“There were times where it felt just like we did when we were training because we had done it so much,” said Christa Arguinchona, who manages the program. “And I think that speaks to the value of preparedness.”

The unit is one of 13 regional treatment centers designated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Sacred Heart received the designation in 2015 and serves Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

“It is a great benefit for our community and our region,” Arguinchona said. “We are very proud to be able to offer this capability for keeping our community safe.”

About 90 Providence staff members from different specialties are part of the program, including both adult and pediatric caregivers, respiratory therapists and medical laboratory scientists.

The team completes quarterly drills and exercises, rehearsing for many scenarios.

Putting that training into use during the pandemic has the team even more prepared.

Arguinchona said the pandemic taught the team the value of training and gave them an increased appreciation of safety protocols.

More than three years later, the pandemic is quickly fading into history for many Americans. The federal COVID-19 public health emergency ended Thursday, less than a week after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus no longer constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.

Meanwhile, the pathogens program is staying vigilant.

“This preparedness process works,” said Brooke Henriksen, the program’s training and education coordinator. “It allows us to be prepared for whatever comes down the pike, and we don’t know what that is.”

In a world where people are traveling more than ever, disease outbreaks are just a plane ride away.

The 14,000-square-foot isolation unit is separated from the rest of the hospital to reduce the amount of potential exposures.

It has 12 patient rooms with negative airflow, which keeps pathogens from leaving the room.

A biosafety level 3 lab, the second-highest level, keeps lab samples contained within the unit.

There are separate rooms for putting on and removing personal protective equipment — processes with serious protocols. The full suit includes a helmet with an air filter.

Putting on all of the pieces of PPE takes about 15 minutes.

“All of the steps, all of the things we do in the special pathogens unit are very methodical,” Henriksen said. “We want our caregivers to slow down, and they practice that so that they keep each other safe.”’

A third person observes the procedure, holding a clipboard with a checklist to make sure providers hit every step in the process.

One of the routine exercises is treating a mock Ebola patient.

The patient simulates vomiting by spilling a cup of chicken noodle soup on the floor.

All bodily fluids are biohazards. The team practices cleaning up the vomit and disinfecting all the surfaces it might have touched.

The waste is triple-bagged and double-knotted in red trash liners.

An autoclave sterilizer is a machine that can sanitize and inactivate pathogens from medical waste on-site, making it safe to dispose.

When the special pathogens unit is not activated, the space can be used for hospital overflow. It was used as an extra COVID-19 floor during surges throughout the pandemic, and for respiratory syncytial virus patients last winter.

Providence coordinates with hospitals in the four states, providing training and education to the entire region, not just Spokane.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.