A cruise ship plowed through the waters of a Texas port on Sunday with precious cargo on board — the end of a small Ebola scare. A passenger had been loosely linked to the only patient to die from the disease in the United States, but health authorities cleared her after an odyssey at sea.
After voluntarily isolating herself in her cabin, she remained symptom-free, and her lab tests looked good, the Galveston County Health Authority said. She and a travel partner were allowed to disembark.
The drama goes back to her work as a lab supervisor at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, the center of a maelstrom of Ebola fears in the United States.
It’s where Liberian patient Thomas Eric Duncan was misdiagnosed and later died, and where two nurses became the first people to contract Ebola in America.
And on Sunday, with the eyes of the nation upon it, the hospital took out a full-page newspaper ad, once again offering an apology.
We slipped up; we’re deeply sorry; we’ll do better.
That could serve as a summary of the open letter from Texas Health Resources CEO Barclay Berdan in the Sunday editions of the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
The turmoil started in September, when Duncan went to the hospital with Ebola symptoms, and health care workers initially sent him home with antibiotics.
They recorded his travel history to West Africa, where a raging Ebola outbreak has killed more than 4,500 people. But they didn’t give that detail the necessary attention, the hospital said.
“As an institution, we made mistakes in handling this very difficult challenge,” Berdan wrote. The hospital is analyzing the errors and will make changes, he said.
Hopefully others will also learn from those mistakes and the first cases of Ebola contagion in the country, and its first death, will also be its last, Berdan wrote.
White House eyes Dallas
At the White House late Saturday, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden pursued the same goal, together with a roster of top security and health leaders — including Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, national security adviser Susan Rice and director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Thomas Frieden.
They zeroed in on Dallas and the process of tracing anyone who may have come into contact with any of the infected people, a White House statement said.
And after Duncan’s misdiagnosis, the administration said it intends to “ensure that Dallas has all of the appropriate and necessary resources to diagnose any additional cases safely and effectively.”
Employee travel scares
The cruise ship incident and a second travel scare came about in a bureaucratic loophole.
In an abundance of caution to avoid any possible spread of the Ebola virus, about 50 people associated with Texas Health Presbyterian have signed a document legally restricting where they can go until they are cleared of Ebola.
But before the voluntary travel ban existed, the lab supervisor and a nurse, who later came down with Ebola, went on trips and triggered hefty responses.
The cruise ship carrying the lab supervisor headed to the Central American country of Belize.
She had had no direct contact with Duncan but may have handled one of his lab specimens. A doctor on board the ship observed her to make sure she was symptom-free as the incubation period within which the disease would manifest itself approached its end.
She appeared to be home free.
But in an abundance of caution, the State Department planned to fly the lab supervisor back to the United States from Belize City’s airport. Then the country’s government declined to let her onto land and, in the same week, imposed strict travel bans on anyone who has had contact with Ebola-affected areas.
Chopper fetches blood samples
The ship hauled the lab worker back toward Texas and on Saturday, a day before its set arrival time, the U.S. Coast Guard sent down a chopper to collect blood samples for lab testing. It lowered a hoist basket to pick them up.
“The samples, which are in a container, so the USCG members are not exposed, were taken by Carnival’s onboard doctor,” said Petty Officer Andy Kendrick, U.S. Coast Guard spokesman.
The other travel scare was set off by one of the nurses who contracted Ebola after treating Duncan. Before her illness was apparent, Amber Vinson took a Frontier Airlines flight to Cleveland, then a flight back to Dallas.
After her contagion became known, the air carrier reached out to some 800 passengers, advising them to contact the CDC.
Frontier Airlines also took the plane out of service temporarily.
In Ohio, 29 people who came into contact with Vinson between October 10 and 13 are being monitored. The nurse has been transferred to Emory University Hospital’s isolation unit in Atlanta for treatment.
Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN on Sunday that he didn’t know much about Vinson’s condition, but he said Nina Pham, the other Dallas nurse who contracted the illness, was in fair condition and doing “fine.”
Tears shed for Duncan
On Saturday, loved ones honored Duncan’s memory in North Carolina, where his mother lives.
In a memorial service at Rowan International Church in Salisbury, his nephew Josephus Weeks and others eulogized Duncan as a kind, compassionate man.
Weeks said he wished Duncan would be remembered for his acts of kindness “as opposed to the person who brought this disease to America, because he didn’t know he was sick.”
Duncan’s willingness to help others may have led to his death at age 42.
Former neighbors in Monrovia, Liberia, have said he may have contracted Ebola while rushing to the aid of a woman who collapsed under duress from the disease. She was pregnant, and Duncan did not know she was sick, they said.
There is good news
There are hopeful signs that some of the Ebola contagion scare in the United States could be winding down. Of the four patients currently being treated, at least two appear to be making a recovery.
And the monitoring of 48 people who came into contact with Duncan should draw to a close soon.
Duncan was admitted to Texas Health Presbyterian on September 28, when he went there the second time. That was the last day the monitored people could have had contact with him.
The maximum incubation period for Ebola is 21 days. That period runs out on Monday.
Contrast that with West Africa, where the disease continues to spread exponentially, as the international response remains anemic.
With predictions that Ebola could infect an additional 5,000 to 10,000 people there per week by December, and given the mobility of world travel, the whirlwind of angst surrounding Duncan’s case might not be the last.