DALLAS — A Texas health care worker who was in full protective gear while providing hospital care for an Ebola patient who later died has tested positive for the virus and is in stable condition, health officials said Sunday. If the preliminary diagnosis is confirmed, it would be the first known case of the disease being contracted or transmitted in the U.S.
Meanwhile, a top federal health official said the health care worker’s Ebola diagnosis shows there was a clear breach of safety protocol and all those who treated Thomas Eric Duncan are now considered to be potentially exposed.
Dr. Daniel Varga, of the Texas Health Resources, said during a news conference Sunday that the worker wore a gown, gloves, mask and shield while they provided care to Duncan during his second visit to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. Varga did not identify the worker and says the family of the worker has “requested total privacy.”
Varga says the health care worker reported a fever Friday night as part of a self-monitoring regimen required by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He said another person also remains in isolation, and the hospital has stopped accepting new emergency room patients.
Duncan, the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S., died Wednesday in Dallas.
“We knew a second case could be a reality, and we’ve been preparing for this possibility,” Dr. David Lakey, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said in a statement Sunday. “We are broadening our team in Dallas and working with extreme diligence to prevent further spread.”
But Dr. Tom Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Sunday raised concerns about a possible breach of safety protocol and told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that among the things CDC will investigate is how the workers took off that gear — because removing it incorrectly can lead to a contamination.
“I think the fact that we don’t know of a breach in protocol is concerning, because clearly there was a breach in protocol,” Frieden said. “We have the ability to prevent the spread of Ebola by caring safely for patients ... We’ll conduct a full investigation of what happens before health workers go in, what happens when they’re there, and what happens in the taking out, taking off their protective equipment because infections only occur when there’s a breach in protocol.”
Health officials have interviewed the patient and are identifying any contacts or potential exposures. They said people who had contact with the health care worker after symptoms emerged will be monitored based on the nature of their interactions and the potential they were exposed to the virus.
Officials said they also received information that there may be a pet in the health care worker’s apartment, and they have a plan in place to care for the animal. They do not believe the pet has signs of having contracted Ebola.
Judge Clay Jenkins, Dallas County’s top administrative official, said the unidentified health care worker is a “heroic” person who “was proud to provide care to Mr. Duncan.” He said the health care worker’s family has requested privacy because they are “going through a great ordeal.”
More than 4,000 people have died in the ongoing Ebola epidemic centered in West Africa, according to World Health Organization figures published Friday. Almost all of those deaths have been in the three worst-affected countries, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Health care workers treating Ebola patients are among the most vulnerable, even if wearing protective gear. A Spanish nurse assistant recently became the first health care worker infected outside west Africa during the ongoing outbreak: she helped care for a missionary priest who was brought to a Madrid hospital. More than 370 health care workers in west Africa have fallen ill or died in west Africa since epidemic began earlier this year.
Ebola spreads through close contact with a symptomatic person’s bodily fluids, such as blood, sweat, vomit, feces, urine, saliva or semen. Those fluids must have an entry point, like a cut or scrape or someone touching the nose, mouth or eyes with contaminated hands, or being splashed. The World Health Organization says blood, feces and vomit are the most infectious fluids, while the virus is found in saliva mostly once patients are severely ill and the whole live virus has never been culled from sweat.
Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S., died Wednesday in Dallas. Duncan grew up next to a leper colony in Liberia and fled years of war before later returning to his country to find it ravaged by the disease that ultimately took his life.
Duncan arrived in Dallas in late September, realizing a long-held ambition to join relatives. He came to attend the high-school graduation of his son, who was born in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast and was brought to the U.S. as a toddler when the boy’s mother successfully applied for resettlement.
The trip was the culmination of decades of effort, friends and family members said. But when Duncan arrived in Dallas, though he showed no symptoms, he had already been exposed to Ebola. His neighbors in Liberia believe Duncan become infected when he helped a pregnant neighbor who later died from it. It was unclear if he knew about her diagnosis before traveling.
Duncan had arrived at a friend’s Dallas apartment on Sept. 20 — less than a week after helping his sick neighbor. For the nine days before he was taken to a hospital in an ambulance, Duncan shared the apartment with several people.