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Without Breaking a Sweat, a Doctor Tracks Ebola and Other Epidemics

The CALL came in on a Friday morning, as Dr. Michael S. Phillips worked at his desk at NYU Langone Medical Center in Manhattan. A patient had arrived in the emergency room burning with fever after returning from a trip to Liberia.

Dr. Phillips knew instantly what this might mean: Ebola.

Within minutes, he dispatched one member of his staff to make sure that the sick man remained isolated and that doctors and nurses were taking precautions to protect themselves against contracting the virus. Then he turned to a second staff member.

“Stop what you’re doing right now,” Dr. Phillips told him, and sent him to the hospital’s laboratory.

The lab?

Dr. Phillips, the director of the infection prevention and control unit at NYU Langone, was already envisioning what his staff had not: a tube of the patient’s blood, loaded with the Ebola virus, landing in the hospital’s nerve center and contaminating thousands of blood and tissue samples, endangering lab technicians and potentially bringing operations at the hospital to a halt.

“It bumps your pulse up a bit,” Dr. Phillips said, with considerable understatement, as he recalled that hectic Aug. 1 morning.

The patient, it turned out, did not have the virus. But with an Ebola epidemic spreading across West Africa, Dr. Phillips and hospital epidemiologists in New York City are grappling with yet another worry as they go about their day-to-day work of preventing, tracking and controlling potentially deadly infections and diseases.

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