First American Ebola patient arrives in U.S. from Africa

Last Updated Aug 2, 2014 6:20 PM EDT

ATLANTA -- The first person infected with Ebola to be brought to the United States from Africa was safely escorted into a specialized isolation unit Saturday at one of the nation's best hospitals, where doctors said they are confident the deadly virus won't escape.

Fear that the outbreak killing more than 700 people in Africa could spread in the U.S. has generated considerable anxiety among some Americans. But infectious disease experts said the public faces little risk as Emory University Hospital treats the critically ill missionary doctor and his assistant, who is expected to arrive from Liberia in several days.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has received "nasty emails" and at least 100 calls from people saying "How dare you bring Ebola into the country!?" CDC Director Tom Frieden told The Associated Press Saturday.

"I hope that our understandable fear of the unfamiliar does not trump our compassion when ill Americans return to the U.S. for care," Frieden said.

Frieden told CBS News that 50 agency workers are going to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone to treat patients and to try to prevent the outbreak from expanding.

"We do not see Ebola spreading within the U.S.," Frieden told CBS News. "The way it spreads is not by casual contact, and it's only from people who are very ill."

Dr. Kent Brantly and his assistant Nancy Writebol will be treated in Emory's isolation unit for infectious diseases, created 12 years ago handle doctors who get sick at the CDC. It is one of about four in the country equipped with everything necessary to test and treat people exposed to very dangerous viruses.

In 2005, it handled patients with SARS, which unlike Ebola can spread like the flu when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

In fact, the nature of Ebola - which is spread by close contact with bodily fluids and blood - means that any modern hospital using standard, rigorous, infection-control measures should be able to handle it.

Still, Emory won't be taking any chances.

"Nothing comes out of this unit until it is non-infectious," said Dr. Bruce Ribner, who will be treating the patients. "The bottom line is: We have an inordinate amount of safety associated with the care of this patient. And we do not believe that any health care worker, any other patient or any visitor to our facility is in any way at risk of acquiring this infection."

Amber Brantly was heartened to see her husband climb out of the ambulance that met his plane at Dobbins Air Reserve Base outside Atlanta.

"It was a relief to welcome Kent home today. I spoke with him, and he is glad to be back in the U.S.," she said in a statement. "I am thankful to God for his safe transport and for giving him the strength to walk into the hospital."

Aerial footage showed one person in white protective clothing from head to toe climb down from the back of the ambulance and a second person in the same type of hazmat-looking suit appeared to take his gloved hands and guide him toward a building at Emory.

Inside the unit, patients are sealed off from anyone who doesn't wear protective gear.

"Negative air pressure" means air flows in, but can't escape until filters scrub any germs from patients. All laboratory testing is conducted within the unit, and workers are highly trained in infection control. Glass walls enable staff outside to safely observe patients, and there's a vestibule where workers suit up before entering. Any gear is safely disposed of or decontaminated.

Family members will be kept at a distance for now, the doctors said. The unit "has a plate glass window and communication system, so they'll be as close as 1-2 inches from each other," Ribner said.

Dr. Jay Varkey, an infectious disease specialist who will be treating Brantly and Writebol, gave no word Saturday about their condition. Both have been described as critically ill after treating Ebola patients at a missionary hospital in Liberia, one of three West African countries hit by the largest outbreak of the virus in history.

There is no cure for the virus, which causes hemorrhagic fever that kills as many as 60-80 percent of the people it infects in Africa. There are experimental treatments, but the missionary hospital had only enough for one person, and Brantly insisted that Writebol receive it. His best hope in Africa was a transfusion of blood including antibodies from one of his patients, a 14-year-old boy who survived thanks to the doctor.

There was also only room on the plane for one patient at a time. Writebol will be next, following the same route to Emory in several days.

Amid the outbreak, nearly 50 delegations from African countries are flying to Washington this weekend for a three-day U.S.-Africa leaders summit that begins Monday.

"This is something we take very seriously," President Obama told reporters Friday.

Mr. Obama said U.S. health officials will take precautions.

"We're making sure we're doing screening on that end as they leave the country," the president said. "We'll do additional screening when we're here. We feel confident that the procedures that we've put in place are appropriate."

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