Leave no trace: Chattanooga company on the front lines of Ebola fight

Leave no trace: Chattanooga company on the front lines of Ebola fight

October 22nd, 2014 by Kate Belz in Local Regional News

A plane with Ebola patient nurse Nina Pham aboard sits on a tarmac at Frederick Municipal Airport on Thursday in Frederick, Md. A Chattanooga company has been awarded a contract to clean some planes that are used to transport Ebola patients.

A plane with Ebola patient nurse Nina Pham...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Every plane that lands on U.S. soil with an evacuated Ebola patient carries two kinds of cargo:

A life that needs to be saved, and a virus that needs to be destroyed.

On the runway, one team is ready for the wheels to hit the ground. They are decked in heavy suits. They have layered their gloves, and double-taped the seams.

After the plane lands and the patient onboard is whisked to the hospital, the suited-up team boards the airplane with one mission: Erase any trace of Ebola.

That team, called a Biological Emergency Response Team, is part of a Chattanooga-based company called SafetyPlus, LLC, which is on the front lines of Ebola decontamination in the U.S.

SafetyPlus plays a role that has been largely behind-the-scenes in the high-stakes battle, but it is a critical one.

As Ebola patients are transported to and throughout the United States for treatment, they can leave a viral path. It's the company's job to obliterate that path so planes, ambulances and treatment centers can safely serve the next patient.

"I feel truly honored and privileged to be a part of this," said Clay Wardlaw, president and COO of SafetyPlus and Chattanooga resident. "One day we'll look back on this and see we were a part of history."

The importance of companies like SafetyPlus only intensified after two Dallas nurses who treated Liberian Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan were diagnosed with the virus.

Since then, worry in the U.S. over the deadly virus has spurred changes in healthcare and travel policy.

In other Ebola-related developments Tuesday:

• The Obama administration tightened the nation's defenses against Ebola by requiring that all arrivals from the disease-ravaged zone pass through one of five U.S. airports: New York's Kennedy airport, Washington Dulles, Liberty in Newark, Chicago's O'Hare and Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson.

• The National Institutes of Health said the condition of the first nurse to be diagnosed with Ebola after treating an infected man at a Dallas hospital has been upgraded to good in Bethesda, Md.

• Manufacturers and distributors of impermeable gowns and full-body suits meant to protect medical workers from Ebola are scrambling to keep up with a surge of new orders from U.S. hospitals. Many hospitals say they already have the proper equipment but are ordering more supplies to prepare for a possible new case of Ebola.

• U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said it's clear that the way "we win this battle is by fighting Ebola at its source in West Africa and aggressively scale up the international response."

Wardlaw, who is a Baylor School graduate, understands the gravity of his company's role in the fight.

The family started the business 10 years ago, working to decontaminate highly-critical environments and help healthcare facilities achieve complex safety certifications.

The company found that hydrogen peroxide vapor was the "cleanest, safest decontamination method."

They invested in large vaporizing units from Bioquell Inc., and soon had contracts with universities and health care companies across the Southeast.

Besides its Chattanooga headquarters, the company now has offices in Atlanta, Orlando, and West Palm Beach, Fla.

The company's work has primarily taken them into labs, hospitals and universities. But since the beginning of August, they have hit the ground running in the fight against Ebola.

While Wardlaw is tight-lipped about his relationships with clients, the company began decontaminating ambulance aircraft at the beginning of August - around the same time Ebola-infected medical missionary Dr. Kent Brantly was flown from Liberia to Atlanta for treatment.

SafetyPlus now has the contract to clean the aircraft flown by Phoenix Air, the airline ambulance company based in Cartersville, Ga., that has a contract with the State Department to transport Ebola-infected or Ebola-exposed patients to treatment centers throughout the world.

The plane, a Gulfstream GIII, features an aeromedical biological containment system (ABCS). The system allows planes to safely transport patients in a tent-like structure, which uses a negative-pressure ventilation system to prevent the escape of any contaminants.

SafetyPlus has decontaminated the aircraft after it has carried six patients who contracted the Ebola virus in Liberia and Sierra Leone to treatment centers in the United States.

A release from Phoenix Air said the company forged a relationship with SafetyPlus at the recommendation of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because of the company's stringent decontamination protocols.

Phoenix Air said the SafetyPlus team is "essential to our rapid response during critical missions transporting individuals infected with the virus from Western Africa to both the United States and Europe."

That hydrogen peroxide vapor technology is now what is being used throughout the world to successfully decontaminate Ebola-exposed areas. The kill rate that the units have in the planes is "extremely successful," said Wardlaw.

"There's nothing left. It touches every surface, top to bottom," said Wardlaw.

The team performs the decontamination twice, and tests its success with microbiological and chemical samples.

SafetyPlus has also been extensively involved in decontaminating ground vehicles and medical centers where the transported patients have been treated. On top of this, the company works to help certify negative-pressure isolation rooms and a long list of other critical environments and equipment.

When people ask Wardlaw whether he is nervous encountering the virus that has panicked the world, his response is matter-of-fact. He's been on more on edge decontaminating labs with other frightening infectious diseases like SARS and anthrax.

While such environments can put anyone on edge, he says it's "all about process."

"This is a proven process," he said. "If we follow this process, we will be safe. "

Wardlaw says he has felt a "huge range of emotions" since starting the Ebola decontamination.

"You see these people get off the plane - and to see them walk out of the hospital and live through this is an amazing moment," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison Belz at kbelz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.


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