DALLAS (AP) — The first Ebola patient diagnosed in the U.S. initially went to a Dallas emergency room last week but was sent home, despite telling a nurse that he had been in disease-ravaged West Africa, the hospital acknowledged Wednesday.
The decision by Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital to release him could have put many others at risk of exposure to the disease before he went back to the ER two days later, after his condition worsened.
Thomas Eric Duncan explained to a nurse Friday that he was visiting the U.S. from Liberia, but that information was not widely shared, said Dr. Mark Lester, who works for the hospital’s parent company.
Duncan’s answer “was not fully communicated” throughout the hospital’s medical team, Lester said.
Instead, the patient was sent home with antibiotics, according to his sister, Mai Wureh, who identified her brother as the infected man in an interview with The Associated Press.
Antibiotics, which target bacteria, are generally ineffective against Ebola, which is caused by a virus.
A day after the man’s diagnosis was confirmed, a nine-member team of federal health officials was tracking anyone who had close contact with him.
The team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was in Dallas to work with local and state health agencies to ensure that those people are watched every day for 21 days.
“If anyone develops fever, we’ll immediately isolate them to stop the chain of transmission,” Dr. Tom Frieden, the CDC director, said in an interview.
Duncan has been kept in isolation at the hospital since Sunday. He was listed in serious but stable condition.
Ebola is believed to have sickened more than 7,100 people in West Africa, and more than 3,300 deaths have been linked to the disease, according to the World Health Organization.
Officials are monitoring 12 to 18 people who may have been exposed to the man, including three members of the ambulance crew that transported him to the hospital and five schoolchildren.
Some of the people are members of his family, but not all, Dallas city spokeswoman Sana Syed said.
The ambulance crew tested negative for the virus and was restricted to home while their conditions are observed. The children, who attend four separate schools, apparently had contact with the man over the weekend and then returned to classes this week. But school officials have said they showed no symptoms.
Ebola symptoms can include fever, muscle pain, vomiting and bleeding, and can appear as long as 21 days after exposure to the virus. The disease is not contagious until symptoms begin.
Officials said there are no other suspected cases in Texas, but the diagnosis sent anxiety through the area’s West African community, whose leaders urged caution to prevent spreading the virus.
The man left Liberia on Sept. 19, arrived the next day to visit relatives and started feeling ill four or five days later, Frieden said.
Frieden said he did not believe anyone on the same flights as the patient was at risk.
The man traveled from his home in the Liberian capital of Monrovia to Brussels and then to Dallas, according to a spokeswoman for the Belgium health ministry, Vinciane Charlier.
“Ebola doesn’t spread before someone gets sick, and he didn’t get sick until four days after he got off the airplane,” Frieden said.
A woman at the Dallas apartment complex where Duncan was believed to be staying declined to answer questions Wednesday. The complex was cordoned off, and the management was turning away visitors. TV cameras lined the fence of the parking lot, and at least one helicopter hovered overhead.
Four American aid workers who became infected in West Africa have been flown back to the U.S. for treatment after they became sick. They were treated in special isolation facilities at hospitals in Atlanta and Nebraska. Three have recovered.
A U.S. doctor exposed to the virus in Sierra Leone is under observation in a similar facility at the National Institutes of Health.
The U.S. has only four such isolation units, but Frieden said there was no need to move the latest patient because virtually any hospital can provide the proper care and infection control.
Passengers leaving Liberia pass through rigorous screening, the country’s airport authority said Wednesday. But those checks are no guarantee that an infected person won’t get through and airport officials would be unlikely to stop someone not showing symptoms, according to Binyah Kesselly, chairman of the Liberia Airport Authority’s board of directors.
CDC officials are helping staff at Monrovia’s airport, where passengers are screened for signs of infection and asked about their travel history. Plastic buckets filled with chlorinated water for hand-washing are present throughout the airport.
Liberia is one of the three hardest-hit countries in the epidemic, along with Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Neergaard reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Nomaan Merchant in Dallas and Emily Schmall in Fort Worth; Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia, Liberia; Francis Kokutse in Accra, Ghana, and Matt Small of AP Radio, contributed to this report.