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Hospitals brace for patients with Ebola worries

Despite efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reassure Americans, health experts and hospitals around the country are preparing for a potential flood of Ebola-panicked patients scared that their common cold or fever might be the deadly infection.

"It's a common phenomenon that we see: Whatever's on the news, we're likely to see in the ER, in terms of people worried that they have it," said Dr. Michelle Barron, an infectious disease specialist at University of Colorado Hospital in Denver. "It's just a natural concern that individuals have - 'Oh my goodness, I could have that.'"

On Tuesday, the CDC confirmed the first case of Ebola virus diagnosed in the United States. The patient, identified by CBS Dallas station KTVT as Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national, had recently flown to Dallas from Liberia to visit family. On Wednesday, CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said on "CBS This Morning" that his agency would stop Ebola "in its tracks" in part because of the strength of the U.S. public health system.

But the diagnosis coincides with the kickoff of flu season, a time when emergency rooms are already pushed to capacity. And since initial Ebola virus symptoms appear similar to those of the flu, health experts believe, news of the diagnosis may add to overcrowding.

"People hear about flu symptoms, they're not paying attention, they haven't been near anybody with Ebola or in an Ebola country, they haven't had fluid contact, they're just nervous, so they show up," said Dr. Arthur Caplan, a medical ethics expert at New York University Langone Medical Center.

"It means more stressed-out workers," he said. "It means more contagiousness of the flu -- sitting together in a hospital."

Banner coverage of the diagnosis has led to a spike in those searching online for Ebola symptoms. In response to an inquiry from CBS News, WebMD reported an 800 percent increase in searches for Ebola-related content on its site since the CDC's announcement. That spike on the Internet, experts believe, portends a rise in worried patients heading to the hospital.

"I think there's no question that there will be more people, certainly in the Dallas area, who will go to the ER with flu-like symptoms," said Dr. Michael Smith, WebMD's chief medical editor.

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A police car drives past the entrance to the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. A patient in the hospital tested positive for the Ebola virus and is being kept in strict isolation, officials said.
AP Photo/LM Otero

Health experts and hospitals CBS News reached out to said the phenomena of "worried well" will largely be felt in the Dallas region. Regardless, they said, they are prepared for the uptick of sick and not-so sick.

"The triage process is very well outlined in most ERs in terms of having to do these assessments all the time of 'who's here with a cold and who's here with a heart attack?'" said Barron with University of Colorado Hospital.

Dr. Alex Isakov, with the Office of Emergency Management at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, added: "If the Ebola case in Dallas spurs patients to present to clinics or hospital emergency departments for evaluation, it is important to note that emergency departments nationwide annually prepare for a large influx of patients with flu-like symptoms, especially during influenza season."

"Since Ebola is not endemic in the U.S., nor is it expected to become endemic, managing an influx of patients with flu-like symptoms would be fairly routine," Isakov said.

In Texas, they've taken extra precautions.

Baylor Scott & White Health, which has its headquarters in Dallas and operates 46 hospitals throughout Texas, said in a statement that because of the Ebola diagnosis in Dallas, its hospitals and clinics now have "enhanced screening efforts at all points of entry. We are using caution. If we encounter any suspicious cases, the patient is immediately placed in isolation."

Medical City Dallas Hospital said in a statement that all of its "patients are screened for potential infectious disease signs and symptoms, including Ebola. Our medical professionals have been specially trained to prepare for the possibility of Ebola and are fully staffed to evaluate all patients and their needs."

And not all are convinced the populace will react with a rush on hospitals. Dr. Alex Rosenau, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, said that in his experience and research, "the public is actually extraordinarily reasonable in their approach to using emergency departments."

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An ambulance pulls into the Dallas Fire-Rescue station 37 in Dallas, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014. Three EMT's from this location are under a 21-day quarantine after a patient they transported tested positive for Ebola.
AP Photo/LM Otero

In 2009, fears related to the H1N1 swine flu virus led many to crowd into emergency rooms. But, CNN reported at the time, many didn't need to be there, and the influx sparked concerns of "overburdening the nation's hospitals and emergency departments." But, Rosenau said, the virus was a very different beast.

"H1N1 was virtually a pandemic, it was throughout the world, and it was easy to catch, it was airborne, and as a country and as a world we were exposed to it," Rosenau said. "Ebola does not exist in this country, except in that one patient, and as far as risk of catching it from that one patient, you would have to have been in close, bodily fluid contact with that patient at the time that they were ill."

The best tool to fight against potential panic, experts say, is education.

"We need some basic instruction on how to handle this," said Caplan, with New York University. Otherwise, he added, "we are going to see some panicked people show up. And we may see some people show up, a tiny number who do have the disease, or are infected, who didn't come in the right way, so to speak."

Another step Caplan recommends: "This is a very crucial year to get that flu shot. Because you don't want to mix it up with other things."

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    Alexander is a digital reporter for CBSNews.com. He previously worked as a multimedia reporter for POLITICO, where he covered the 2012 presidential campaign.