It looks like an eviscerated, inside-out caterpillar, but this piece of equipment can protect the lives and well-being of emergency medical personnel during an infectious disease outbreak.

It’s called an Iso-Pod, and the Lewiston Fire Department has the only one in the region. Its main job is to safely contain infected patients while they are transported between medical facilities while still providing access for ongoing treatment.

“This way, the patient is in here and we can be masked up, but more like surgical masks,” Lewiston Fire Department Chief Travis Myklebust said of the alternative the Iso-Pod provides to bulky biohazard or hazardous material safety suits. “They’re not having to wear the full suits and breathe through the air packs. It’s not as hot and you’re not all bunched up. When you’re wearing those suits, they are a booger.”

The Iso-Pod can also contain a ventilator to assist patients with breathing difficulties, one of the common symptoms of the regular strains of influenza or the new coronavirus outbreak that has sickened and killed thousands in China. But the Iso-Pod came to Lewiston thanks to another outbreak, the Ebola virus epidemic of 2014.

As the home of the North Central Idaho hazardous materials response team, the city obtained the Iso-Pod six years ago through a state grant amid the response to that epidemic.

“We were one of the sites, because of our hazmat team and our depth of service, that would transport a patient to one of the higher-acuity hospitals that specialize in treating that kind of disease,” Myklebust said.

The Iso-Pod is highly portable. Its interior plastic skeleton can be taken apart, and the outer plastic liner folded up. The whole kit fits into an easily transported carry bag. And when assembled, it fits perfectly onto the gurneys that medics use to move patients. The one at the Lewiston department has never been used, except for training, but it stands ready as the region prepares for the possible emergence of coronavirus closer to home.

“I’m not freaking out because we are prepared,” Myklebust said.

Equipment like the Iso-Pod gives the department the ability to contain contagious diseases, but emergency responders also follow a carefully constructed set of protocols. For instance, 911 dispatchers were trained to screen callers during the Ebola outbreak with a series of questions that assessed the potential for infection.

Emergency medical teams are then able to use that information to respond with the appropriate levels of protection and caution. The local situation hasn’t gotten to that level yet, but the protocol can easily be activated if it does.

“It gives us the ability to come in prepared.”

Myklebust said he and other emergency responders around the country are closely monitoring the coronavirus situation, which hasn’t yet escalated in the United States. In addition to reading regular dispatches from the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he keeps tabs on the latest information from the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the Johns Hopkins University Novel coronavirus information page.

He recommended that those who experience flu-like symptoms (fever, cough, shortness of breath) follow typical prevention measures, like frequent handwashing and staying away from work and public places. They should also see their primary care provider as soon as possible for an accurate diagnosis, Myklebust added.

But for now, the chief continues to keep his cool. Lewiston City Manager Alan Nygaard and Myklebust are meeting with officials from St. Joseph Regional Medical Center next week to further refine their coronavirus preparations.

“The threat is still low,” Myklebust said, “but we have to be ready.”

Mills may be contacted at or (208) 848-2266.

Recommended for you