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Authorities Find Man Who Had Contact With Dallas Ebola Patient


Health officials in Dallas can do little more than watch and wait. They're monitoring 48 people and looking for signs they may have been infected with Ebola.


These are the people who had any kind of contact with Thomas Eric Duncan; he's the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. NPR Health correspondent Rob Stein has been tracking the scramble to contain the disease. Hi, Rob.


INSKEEP: So how's the watching going?

STEIN: Well, you know, it turns out this isn't as easy as it sounds. For example, yesterday we discovered that one of the people that they're keeping an eye on was a homeless man who they'd been taking his temperature every day. They took his temperature on Saturday; they went to find him on Sunday, and suddenly he was gone. He went AWOL, and so they put out a public appeal to try to identify this person and ask them to come back. And finally by the end of the day, he did show up, and they think they know where he is now; they're keeping an eye on him.

INSKEEP: Which is scary for people because not only are they worried about that homeless man, but worried about who he comes in contact with, right?

STEIN: Right, right, right. This person was about - 48 people as you mentioned who are being watched; 38 of them are considered very low risk for actually having been infected. They might've had some contact, but no direct contact. But just be on the safe side, they're taking their temperature every day for any signs that they develop a fever. And that would be the first time that they are actually infected and then would be at risk of spreading the disease. So far none of these people have any symptoms, and so far there's no risk that they could be spreading it.

INSKEEP: So besides the missing, or briefly missing, homeless man, any other surprises here?

STEIN: Well, you know, pretty much from the day that Duncan's diagnosed was announced there have been surprises. For example the first thing that happened was that the hospital where he first sought help turned him away, sent him home for several days.


STEIN: Where he got sicker and sicker and could have exposed other people to the virus. At first they said they didn't realize he'd been in West Africa. Then they changed their story and said, well, we knew he was from West Africa, but there was something about our electronic computer system that that information got confused. And then late Friday they said, well, no, that's not really what happened. And we still haven't gotten a clear explanation about why they let him go home.

INSKEEP: So there are questions there, and there are also questions, if I'm not mistaken, about this quarantine of Duncan's relatives. They were told to stay in their home. They've actually been watched to make sure they stay in their home. But there are questions about how that was done.

STEIN: Yeah, well, in this situation, this is really, believe it or not, a question about trash collection. These people were ordered to stay in their apartment. There was a guard posted outside, and then it turned out that their apartment hadn't been decontaminated. There had been towels and sheets and other items that were left in the apartment that potentially could've still exposed them to the virus, and it turned out what happened here is that there had been a problem getting a permit to remove these items. And this was actually an issue that the CDC had been aware of for a long time. They were worried about it in terms of hospital waste. And they thought they'd gotten the whole thing resolved, but at the last minute, it turned out they didn't have a local permit that they needed, and it took some time. So finally a local official literally went over to these people's apartment, drove them to another location so that their apartment could be cleaned up.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure that we're clear on this - could Ebola be spread by trash? Is that actually medical waste or...

STEIN: You know, the risk is very low, but there's theoretically a possibility that you could have some contaminated items that still had the virus on them that if someone is exposed to, they could get infected. And so just be on the safe side, you don't want people hanging around with this stuff.

INSKEEP: And very briefly here, Rob, understand that people have not faced this exact situation before; but people certainly have had years to think about biohazards in different kinds of attacks. Who is in charge in a situation like this?

STEIN: Well, you know, in the movies it's - you know, you have some government official swoops in, they set up a high-tech command center, and they start ordering people around and taking control. In real life, it doesn't quite work that way. Technically who's in charge here are local officials - state, county, local health departments - and they invite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in to advise them and help them in this situation. And that's exactly what they did; the CDC has a 10-member team on the ground, and they're working together. But it's not as easy as you think.

INSKEEP: OK, Rob, thanks very much.

STEIN: Nice to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Stein. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.