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Cartersville air crews trained for Ebola transport

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Cartersville-based Phoenix Air Group has been readying for the type of Ebola mission it flew for the past five years.

Phoenix Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Dent Thompson told a large crowd of media representatives Thursday that officials with the Centers for Disease Control on Prevention, U.S. State Department and other federal agencies approached Phoenix about five years ago.

They wanted to be able to safely transport patients with infectious diseases such as SARS — Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome — bird flu, and the H1N1 swine flu.

Thompson said the Aeromedical Biological Containment System was developed as a result of those discussions. The containment system was specifically designed to fit into the Phoenix Gulfstream G3 air ambulance.

“The unit was tested to the extreme degree by a number of agencies,” he said.

Thompson was joined at Cartersville Airport on Thursday by members of the flight crews and medical crews who transported U.S. Ebola patients Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol from Liberia to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

He likened the Phoenix air ambulance to a firetruck.

“We’re ready to go at the drop of a hat if some sort of a problem develops that this would be the appropriate answer,” he said.

The Phoenix executive said his company, which is a government contractor, was paid for its services in the last two weeks by Samaritan’s Purse, the charity both Brantly and Writebol were working for. He declined to say how much the two missions cost.

Dr. Michael Flueckiger, medical director for Phoenix, said that once Brantly and Writebol were safely inside the containment unit, they could remove the hazardous suits they wore to prevent others from exposure to the Ebola virus.

Phoenix Senior Captain Randy Davis said the flight crew did not have to wear any special protective gear because the patients and medical crew were in the main compartment of the specially designed aircraft.

Vance Ferebee, the chief flight nurse for Phoenix, was on both trips. He said the medical crew was pretty comfortable with the missions.

“We trained. The procedures to take care of someone in an isolation environment are pretty well established and thought-out,” Ferebee said. “We’re set up basically as an ICU.”

The flight physician, Dr. Douglas Olson, was on the flight with Brantly and said he was impressed by the fortitude Brantly displayed on the trip.

“He was very weak. It was clear that he had been battling a severe illness,” Olson noted.

Ferebee said Writebol told the crew that she was glad to be going home and was very tired.

The aircraft was completely decontaminated after each flight and the containment tents Brantly and Writebol rode in were broken down and incinerated.

Davis said he hopes the treatment of Brantly and Writebol, coupled with the research associated with their cases, would help eradicate Ebola.