Just about the time everyone thought the Ebola crisis in Africa was dying down, Phoenix Air Group Inc. in Cartersville got a call that led to seven transports over the course of eight days.
The trips put more than 77,000 miles on the trio of Phoenix aircraft, enough to circle the globe three times.
Phoenix Air is the only air ambulance operator in the U.S. that has transported Ebola patients or those with exposure to the disease.
To date, the Bartow-based company has flown more than 40 Ebola-related medical missions under a three-year, $37.4 million contract with the U.S. State Department.
Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Dent Thompson said the company initially had two Gulfstream jets modified with a specially designed patient containment system.
Their policy is to always have a back-up jet, he said, so they modified a third jet at the peak of the crisis, late in 2014 — never imagining all three would be used at one time.
But on March 10 they got a call from the State Department about an outbreak in Free Town, Sierra Leone.
“There were 20 Americans with a strong exposure,” Thompson said.
The company had 15 pilots and nine members of its medical staff running almost non-stop through March 18, transporting patients back to the U.S. Phoenix also dropped off two patients in England on one of those sorties.
“That just showed the nature of this disease,” Thompson said. “Literally overnight we had this explosion of exposures.”
Of the 20 brought back to the U.S., only one got seriously sick and was transported to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
“None of them ever developed a full case of Ebola,” Thompson said.
The Phoenix Air Group also was called on to fly a Cuban doctor from Africa to the World Health Organization medical facility in Geneva, Switzerland.
Thompson said the Cuban government contracted with the WHO to send 25 doctors to Africa. When one was exposed to Ebola, the WHO called the State Department and they called Phoenix. All of that occurred before President Obama revealed plans to re-establish some relations with Cuba.
‘If it’s Ebola, it’s Phoenix Air’
Thompson said there are a number of reasons why Ebola has not been in the news much since the first of the year.
“First, Africa has been flooded with medical people who are using much better protocols,” he said. “They are able to identify and isolate cases quicker than they used to.”
Another is due to what Thompson referred to as an enormous cultural education effort.
He said that when someone dies in Africa, there is generally a lot of handling of the body by family members. Medical professionals have been able to explain how that hands-on respect for the dead is not such a good idea when Ebola is involved.
Not all of the Phoenix transports have involved patients.
“Some of the trips, we actually are carrying scientific equipment with live Ebola virus in it, to and from the CDC laboratories in Africa,” Thompson said. “In other words — if it’s Ebola, it’s Phoenix Air.”
So far, Phoenix Air has enjoyed a 100-percent success rate on its trips.
“That means none of our people have gotten sick or exposed,” Thompson said.
That standard extends from the flight crew to the maintenance crew that decontaminates the plane and incinerates the patient containment unit after every trip.
The State Department arranges all the transports, even if the victim is affiliated with a charity — such as the Samaritan’s Purse workers Dr. Keith Brantly and Nancy Writebol, the first two patients brought to Emory Hospital in Atlanta. Phoenix sends its invoices to the State Department, which in turn bills the third party.
Thompson declined to discuss what Phoenix Air charges, but Samaritan’s Purse officials publicly disclosed that they paid approximately $200,000 each for the Brantly and Writebol transfers.
Those first transfers essentially established the standard for expenses related to the air ambulance trips, Thompson said, adding that a similar fee today would be “fairly accurate.” Trips to other locations around the globe would vary on a case-by-case basis.
Thompson said Phoenix Air’s profit margin on the Ebola trips is no higher than on any other air ambulance trip. The costs associated with staffing and decontamination are extensive, he noted.