Officials are now looking for passengers on the Oct. 10 Frontier Airlines flight to Cleveland in addition to the return trip on Oct. 13, a day before nurse Amber Vinson was diagnosed with Ebola. She may have been sick earlier than previously believed, a CDC spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal. Frontier, meanwhile, said it would contact passengers on five additional trips made by the plane that Vinson took on her flight home, before the CDC notified the airline of her diagnosis.
The Dallas hospital where Vinson works, which had the misfortune of encountering the first U.S. case of the virus, transferred another infected nurse Thursday to a specialized facility more equipped to handle it. She left behind a community so gripped with fear that county officials debated declaring a disaster and imposing mandatory movement restrictions on more than 100 people who had contact with the two infected nurses or the Ebola patient they cared for, Liberian man Thomas Eric Duncan.
When the proposal was brought before the Dallas County Commission Thursday, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, the county's top administrator, argued that the people in question, many of them health workers, had already pledged to monitor themselves for symptoms, report temperature spikes to health officials and stay away from public spaces.
The health workers, Jenkins said, are heroes and are already enduring a scary waiting game. "They don't need to feel like they are the 'others' that we need to declare martial law on." Still, officials have asked 75 health workers who had contact with Duncan to sign legal documents agreeing to stay home, according to the Associated Press.
Vinson is now receiving care at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. Her colleague Nina Pham was taken Thursday to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. Duncan died Oct. 8 at Texas Health Presbyterian.
Earlier in the day lawmakers hammered the administration's point man on the response, CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden, during a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Several lawmakers called for the administration to impose a ban on travelers from the West African nations where the outbreak is most severe. "People's lives are at stake, and the response so far has been unacceptable," Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said.
Obama rejected those calls, siding with public health experts who say doing so would encourage travelers to mask their paths and delay treatment. The administration's current approach, he said, allows officials to screen travelers before and after their flights and gather contact information from those traveling from affected parts of Africa.
Dr. Daniel Varga, chief clinical officer for Presbyterian parent organization Texas Health Resources, apologized during the hearing for missing the Ebola diagnosis when Duncan first visited the Dallas hospital on the night of Sept. 25. "In our initial treatment of Mr. Duncan, despite our best intentions and a highly skilled medical team, we made mistakes," Varga told lawmakers via a remote feed from Dallas. "We are deeply sorry."
Varga rebuffed reports conveyed through National Nurses United, a union that does not represent any of the system's workers, that Presbyterian failed to prepare its frontline health workers for a possible Ebola case and poorly executed the CDC protocols for protecting the ones who cared for Duncan. The hospital diligently followed the advice of the CDC, Varga said, noting that the recommendations evolved throughout the course of Duncan's treatment. Hospital leaders, he said, are "poring over records and observations" to understand how the nurses were infected.
Frieden reiterated his confidence that healthcare workers who carefully follow protocols can safely treat a patient with the extremely virulent virus and that it still does not pose a public health risk in the U.S., even though the pool of people potentially in contact with it has grown to a few hundred across at least two states. Some schools closed Thursday in Texas and Ohio because students had flown with Vinson.
But Frieden also acknowledged that the course of events since Duncan arrived at the Dallas hospital, with two confirmed transmissions now on U.S. soil, had somewhat confounded that expectation. "While we do not yet know exactly how these transmissions occurred, they demonstrate the need to strengthen the procedures for infection-control protocols which allowed for exposure to the virus," Frieden said.
Obama said he would consider appointing someone to the administration to focus solely on the Ebola response, a position the news media immediately dubbed an "Ebola czar."
But the president repeatedly urged the nation to remain calm. "I understand that people are scared," he said. "What remains true is this is not an airborne disease. It is not easy to catch. It's important for all of us to keep perspective in terms of how we handle this."
Follow Gregg Blesch on Twitter: @MHgblesch