DALLAS — After three weeks of Ebola fear and tumult, Dallas County took a step back toward normal Monday.
The emergency room where Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan was treated returned to regular operations. And 51 people considered at risk for the virus have been released from county monitoring after 21 days. That’s the longest it has taken someone to develop symptoms of the disease after being exposed to someone actively ill.
Still, North Texas is far from being in the clear. Two nurses who cared for Duncan are fighting for their lives in out-of-state hospitals. And 116 people continue to be monitored to make sure they don’t come down with the viral disease.
“Today is a milestone day — a hurdle we needed to clear,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said. But, he quickly added, “there are other hurdles we need to jump.”
The next big milestone is “the magic date” when health officials will be able to declare Dallas completely free of Ebola, Rawlings said. If no one else falls ill — which would trigger another round of contact tracing and another 21-day clock to watch for symptoms — that day will be Nov. 7.
Local leaders called Monday a joyous day. Gov. Rick Perry said the state welcomed “with guarded optimism” the news that dozens of people who had come into contact with Duncan had not developed Ebola.
“Continuous vigilance in confronting this threat and the cooperation of those affected is what brought us to this point,” Perry said, “and we look forward to the day when the remaining individuals can be removed from active monitoring.”
Those released from monitoring on Monday included some people considered at high risk because they were among the people closest to Duncan. The 42-year-old Liberian died in Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas on Oct. 8.
The hospital and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have acknowledged missteps in the early response to Duncan’s illness. He was misdiagnosed and released when he first went to Presbyterian’s emergency room on Sept. 25. He returned three days later in an ambulance and gravely ill. By then he was contagious.
But with the clearance of 51 people, it appears exceedingly unlikely that anyone in the public caught the Ebola virus from Duncan.
Only one person who was exposed because of him and isn’t a health care worker remains under watch. That person is a homeless man who later rode in the same ambulance used to take Duncan to the hospital. He hasn’t developed symptoms and is close to being cleared, too.
Two Presbyterian nurses, Nina Pham and Amber Vinson, did become infected.
Responding to that, the CDC on Monday announced new guidelines for people treating Ebola patients in the United States. The guidelines eliminate all skin exposure and require supervision whenever protective gear is put on or taken off. The Ebola virus is transmitted through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.
Other than Duncan’s caregivers at Presbyterian, the person who had been considered at the greatest risk was his fiancee, Louise Troh. She housed him in her Vickery Meadow apartment before he was hospitalized. She had been isolated with her family at a gated Oak Cliff retreat owned by the Catholic Diocese of Dallas.
Troh’s pastor, George Mason of Wilshire Baptist Church, said Troh and her family were “jubilant” about being able to return to their normal lives.
“This has been a situation that is hard to even conceive if you haven’t lived it,” Mason said. “It is an isolating experience filled with fear and anxiety.”
Troh will be moving into a new apartment. The city, her church and local nonprofits will provide her with six months’ rent and new household items to help with the transition.
Three school-age children living with Troh were also released Monday. They join five other children under supervision who will return to school by Tuesday, officials said.
“We are glad they are back in school. That is where kids belong,” said Mike Miles, the Dallas school superintendent.
Meanwhile, Presbyterian Hospital also worked to return to normal. The hospital resumed accepting patients by ambulance at its emergency room. It had been diverting them to other emergency rooms while it dealt with the Ebola crisis.
In the latest show of support for their beleaguered employer, about 75 Presbyterian nurses stood outside the hospital’s front door Monday afternoon and praised the institution to a bank of television cameras.
“We want our community and our country to know that the nurses at Presbyterian are so proud of our hospital … and so proud of what we do,” said Cole Edmonson, the hospital’s chief nursing officer. “And we are especially proud of two of our own, Nina Pham and Amber Vinson.”
Edmonson called Duncan’s death “devastating” to the staff. He vowed that Presbyterian would again become known as “an excellent hospital.”
Some nurses had anonymously criticized the hospital last week, saying it was unprepared for the nation’s first Ebola infection. Since then, the hospital has hired a public relations firm to mend its image.
Julie Boling, an emergency department nurse wearing blue scrubs, said Presbyterian “worked tirelessly to save Mr. Duncan. We are experts in our field, and we don’t want to be judged by this one incident.”
“This could have happened to any hospital,” she said. “Some things went wrong, and we’re proud to say Presbyterian has owned those things.”
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