DALLAS — Texas Gov. Rick Perry and a cast of local and state health officials sought to quiet fears in Dallas on Wednesday as more details emerged about the nation’s first Ebola diagnosis.
The patient has been identified as Thomas Eric Duncan, a 42-year-old resident of Monrovia, Liberia, by The New York Times and other media outlets. He traveled to Dallas recently to visit family members and became ill here last week.
Health officials have declined to disclose the patient’s name, citing privacy laws.
They said they are monitoring more than a dozen people, including five children, who had close contact with Duncan.
At a news conference, Perry said the patient was receiving “the very best care” at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. Duncan, who remains in isolation in the hospital, was said to be in “serious but stable” condition. A day earlier, he was described as critically ill.
Perry praised the hospital and health workers.
“This case is serious but rest assured that our system is working as it should,” he said. “There are few places in the world better equipped to meet the challenge this patient poses. The public should have every confidence.”
Presbyterian officials acknowledged, however, that the hospital’s emergency room staff mistakenly sent Duncan home with antibiotics when he sought treatment a week ago. His symptoms seemed minor — a low-grade fever and abdominal pain — but he told a nurse that he had recently arrived from Africa.
U.S. hospitals have been instructed to watch for patients with Ebola symptoms, such as Duncan’s, especially in people who have recently traveled to or from West Africa.
“Regretfully, that information was not communicated to the whole team,” said Dr. Mark Lasker, Presbyterian’s executive vice president.
Duncan returned to the hospital Sunday morning with unmistakable Ebola symptoms and was placed in isolation. His Ebola test came back positive Tuesday.
Ebola is an infectious and generally fatal disease marked by fever and severe internal bleeding. It is spread through contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids, including sweat, saliva, blood and urine.
Even before Duncan’s test result was known, Dallas County health workers had begun to track the people who had personal contact with him. So far, 12 to 18 people, including five school-age children, have been identified as contacts during the four days Duncan was contagious but not hospitalized.
Dallas schools superintendent Mike Miles said that starting Wednesday, the children, who attend four Dallas schools, are being kept home. Dallas County will monitor them — along with the adults who were in contact with Duncan — watching for signs of Ebola. Each person, for example, will be tested daily for fever, usually the first symptom of the disease.
“The students didn’t have any symptoms,” Miles said at the news conference. “The odds of them passing the virus (to others) is low.”
The monitoring effort will last for 21 days, the longest time it takes Ebola symptoms to appear after a person is exposed to the virus. It was not clear if the children will be kept indoors throughout the incubation period or what restrictions have been placed on the adults.
Zachary Thompson, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services, said Duncan’s contacts are being asked to obey certain rules, although he did not elaborate.
“If they don’t follow our guidelines, more stringent rules will be followed,” he said.
The schoolchildren were not being quarantined — kept in strict isolation, under force of law — though they have been ordered to stay away from their schools, said Dr. Christopher Perkins, the county medical director.
On such decisions, local officials will be guided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has sent a team of Ebola experts to Dallas.
“If the CDC says they’re not to leave their homes, we’ll follow that,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. “We are talking to the best doctors in the world to prevent the spread of this disease.”
Authorities haven’t disclosed the patient’s airline route. Brussels Airlines is one of the last major carriers still serving Liberia since the Ebola outbreak. It has twice-weekly service to Brussels, and United Airlines confirmed Wednesday that Duncan flew from Brussels to Washington Dulles International Airport, and on to Dallas from Dulles.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the CDC, emphasized that there is “zero chance” that Duncan could have infected anyone on those flights, since he had no Ebola symptoms at that time.
Jenkins asked the media not too incite public fear about the Ebola case. He asked reporters, for example, not to knock on doors in the Vickery-Meadow neighborhood where Duncan was staying. The northeast Dallas area is a dense apartment community that is home to many refugee and immigrant families.
“You’ve got a neighborhood of 25,000 people and 33 languages,” he said. “We don’t want to panic the neighborhood and run people underground, so to speak. We need people to remain calm.”
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Jenkins said he planned to visit one on one with Vickery-Meadow residents to explain to them that they are safe from exposure to Ebola.
“We are going to go talk to those people,” he said. “That’s the best way to reassure them that they’re OK.”
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings asked reporters to help public officials defuse anxiety about Ebola.
“You are all intelligent,” the mayor said. “Science says that if you are not exhibiting symptoms of this, there is zero chance that you can transmit this. Tell them: It’s zero chance.”
(Staff writers Reese Dunklin, Brooks Egerton and Dianna Hunt contributed to this report.)
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