A health care worker in Dallas has been preliminarily diagnosed with Ebola, suggesting that the first case of the deadly virus has been transmitted on U.S. soil. The news has renewed questions over whether Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, the facility that recently treated the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States, is doing enough to stem the spread of the disease.
The worker — who has not been identified by name — was one of the hospital employees who helped treat Thomas E. Duncan, the Liberian man who recently died of Ebola after traveling to Dallas. Federal health experts have been tracking all of the Americans with whom Duncan may have come into contact while he was contagious.
According to hospital officials, the infected individual helped treat Duncan during his second trip to the emergency room, when he was seriously ill. “That health care worker is a heroic person who provided care to Mr. Duncan,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkin said at a news conference on Sunday morning.
The infected worker was reportedly wearing full protective gear around Duncan, so it’s not yet clear how the virus was transmitted. But, according to federal officials, the hospital failed to follow at least part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s protocol for containing Ebola. The agency has released a set of detailed guidelines for health care facilities to ensure that the virus is not transmitted further.
There has been some controversy over the care that Duncan received at Texas Health Presbyterian. First of all, it’s concerning that he was sent home after his first visit to the ER; the fact that he had a high fever and had recently traveled from Western Africa should have alerted officials to the potential Ebola risk.
According to the Associated Press, the hospital has repeatedly changed its story about what exactly medical professionals knew about Duncan’s health. Newly released documents show that some of the hospital staff may have recognized the Ebola threat when he was first admitted, but that didn’t translate to swifter action. The state health department is now considering a probe into the hospital to make sure it’s following health and safety laws, and the CDC is going to send additional staff to Texas.
Joined by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Duncan’s family has repeatedly criticized the hospital, saying he was given substandard care because he was not a white American. They point out that Duncan was the only person treated for Ebola in the U.S. who wasn’t taken to Nebraska Medical Center, which has a high-tech quarantine unit, or given experimental drugs that may help combat the virus. Duncan’s nephew has told reporters that said his uncle’s care was “either incompetence or negligence,” and he finds it “conspicuous” that all the white Ebola patients in the U.S. have survived while “the one black man died.”
More broadly, there has been some concern that panic over the global Ebola epidemic — which has claimed more than 4,000 lives in Western Africa — is leading to an uptick in xenophobia and racism. Pundits’ increasingly insistent calls to close the U.S. borders to protect against Ebola-infected travelers is furthering a narrative of “otherness.” Some African travelers arriving back to the U.S. and Europe say that medical staff is now refusing to care for them in routine doctor’s appointments out of fear of contracting Ebola, even if they’re not showing any symptoms.
When it comes to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, officials promise they’re continuing to “review and evaluate” the decisions around Duncan’s treatment. The hospital has also isolated the health care worker who is showing signs of Ebola infection and is working to track down the other people who may have come into contact with them. Officials say they’re still confident they know how to contain the virus.
“Contingency plans were put into place, and the hospital will discuss the way that the health care worker followed those contingency plans, which will make our jobs in monitoring and containment much easier in this case than in the last one,” Jenkin said. “While this was obviously bad news, it is not news that should bring about panic.”
In response to growing concern about travelers bringing Ebola into the United States, airport officials began enhanced screenings on Saturday. Still, experts maintain that the best way to respond to Ebola is to address the outbreak’s epicenter in Western Africa, where embattled countries are still struggling to get the health care resources they need to treat the virus.
President Obama was briefed on the new Ebola case on Sunday. He ordered an expeditious investigation into the failures of Texas Health Presbyterian, and also asked the CDC to ensure that hospitals get more preparation for how to deal with other Ebola cases that may emerge.