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San Antonio doctor who helped fight Ebola virus now combatting COVID-19 in Bexar County

Dr. Ralph Riviello discusses preparation at University Hospital, curve and peak in Bexar County

SAN ANTONIO – Ralph Riviello has been on the front lines before. In 2014, the San Antonio doctor was working at a Pennsylvania hospital where he was part of the response team that took on the Ebola outbreak.

Now, as the chair of emergency medicine at UT-Heath San Antonio and University Hospital, Riviello is helping lead the charge to fight COVID-19 in Bexar County.

“A lot of the lessons learned there and through China and other countries, as well as other parts of the United States right now has allowed San Antonio and probably other parts of the country to prepare for it and be ready,” said Riviello.

Riviello understands this is a very different virus. Ebola was short lived in the U.S. COVID-19 has swept through the country.

RELATED: University Healthy System run drills, prepares for potential flood of COVID-19 patients

Eleven people were treated for ebola in the United States during the 2014-2016 pandemic.

“The way it is spread is different enough that corona makes it a lot easier to catch than Ebola was,” said Riviello. “I think timing of things like spring break trips and other things have allowed it to spread more easily.”

Unlike some other major cities, San Antonio has benefited from having time to prepare for a possible influx of patients and gather equipment.

“If you look at New York, they are repurposing physicians because they’re having manpower issues,” said Riviello. “But a lot of these physicians haven’t had time to get a refresher on how to take care of a sicker patient, a respiratory patient. We’ve had that luxury.”

That shift has helped University and other area hospitals avoid a dreaded spike in the curve.

“We've gotten ahead of it as a region with a lot of our social distancing,” said Riviello. “I think our curve is going to be very different than the curve that they're seeing in New York, Philadelphia and other major cities.”

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San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Tuesday these few upcoming weeks would be difficult in fighting the virus in Bexar County. Riviello expects us to be in the long haul as well.

“Our peak is anywhere from 2-6 week period. If you want to take the average it's about four weeks,” said Riviello. “Hopefully we'll have the stamina to have that stretched out curve. We'll be able to have staff who could respond to it where we're not all hands on deck right from the start.”

Riviello said University Hospital has continued to think outside the box to fight the virus.

All providers in the emergency room are now masked and earlier this week, the hospital held a mock drill to prepare for a possible flood of COVID-19 patients.

“It’s really strengthened the teamwork that we display in our emergency department every single day,” said Riviello. “I think anybody in health care will attest to the fact that we’re there for the patient and we want to provide the best possible care that we can.”

COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new virus, stands for coronavirus disease 2019. The disease first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, but spread around the world in early 2020, causing the World Health Organization to declare a pandemic in March.

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