Federal health officials on Tuesday confirmed the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the U.S., a patient who recently traveled from Liberia to Dallas, in a sign of the far-reaching impact of the out-of-control epidemic in West Africa.
The unidentified patient was critically ill and has been in isolation at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital since Sunday, officials said.
Health authorities have begun tracking down family and friends who might have had close contact with the patient and could be at risk for becoming ill. But officials said there are no other suspected cases in Texas.
At the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Director Dr. Tom Frieden said the patient left Liberia on Sept. 19, arrived the next day to visit family and started feeling ill four or five days later. He said it was not clear how the person became infected.
Frieden said there was no risk to anyone on the airplane because the patient had no symptoms at the time of the flight.
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 isn’t contagious until symptoms begin, and it takes close contact with bodily fluids to spread.
“The bottom line here is that I have no doubt we will control this importation, or this case of Ebola, so that it does not spread widely in this country,” Frieden told a news conference.
“It is certainly possible that someone who had contact with this individual, a family member or other individual, could develop Ebola in the coming weeks,” he added. “But there is no doubt in my mind that we will stop it here.”
Frieden updated President Barack Obama on the patient and the public health investigation, the White House said.
Frieden said he believed the case also marked the first time this strain of Ebola has been diagnosed outside of West Africa.
Four American aid workers who became infected while volunteering in West Africa have been flown back to the U.S. for treatment after they became sick. They were cared for in special isolation facilities at hospitals in Atlanta and Nebraska. Also, 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 asked whether the patient would be moved to one of those specialty facilities, Frieden said there was no need and virtually any hospital can provide the proper care and infection control.
Dr. Edward Goodman, epidemiologist for Texas Health Presbyterian, said the hospital had a plan for handling Ebola should a suspected case emerge and was “well prepared” to provide care.
After arriving in the U.S. on Sept. 20, the patient began to develop symptoms Sept. 24 and initially sought care two days later, Frieden said. The patient was admitted to the hospital Sunday, when Texas Health Presbyterian put him under strict isolation.
Asked how many people the patient might have had close contact with in that time period, Frieden said, “I think a handful is the right characterization.”
Blood tests by Texas health officials in Austin and the CDC separately confirmed an Ebola diagnosis on Tuesday.
The city of Dallas activated its Emergency Operations Center and is on “Level 2: High Readiness” after the person was confirmed to have the virus at 3:32 p.m. Tuesday, according to a statement. The Dallas Fire-Rescue EMS crew that treated the patient Sunday, as well as the ambulance, has been quarantined, Mayor Mike Rawlings told the Dallas Morning News.
“There’s a clear protocol laid out, and everyone’s making sure they are dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’,” Rawlings said.
Frieden wouldn’t reveal the patient’s nationality. Authorities did say, however, that the patient didn’t appear to have been caring for Ebola victims in Africa.
Since the summer months, U.S. health officials have been preparing for the possibility that a traveler could unknowingly arrive with the infection. Health authorities have advised hospitals on how to prevent the virus from spreading within their facilities.
People boarding planes in the outbreak zone are checked for fever, but that doesn’t guarantee that an infected person won’t get through. Liberia is one of the three hardest-hit countries in the epidemic, along with Sierra Leone and Guinea. The epidemic has killed more than 3,000 people in West Africa.
5 things to know about the case
• When and how it happened: Health officials say they don’t know how the man was infected but he flew from the West African country of Liberia, where the outbreak is ongoing, on Sept. 19 and arrived to visit relatives in the U.S. a day later. His symptoms started around Sept. 24, he sought medical care on Sept. 26 but wasn’t admitted to the hospital until Sept. 28.
• Risk to fellow travelers: “Ebola doesn’t spread till someone gets sick, and he didn’t get sick for four days” after getting off the plane, so officials are not seeking out fellow passengers for signs of illness, said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus doesn’t spread through the air — only through close contact with bodily fluids from a sick person, he stressed.
• Risk to people in Dallas: Several family members and maybe a few others are being monitored for possible risk — “handful is the right characterization” for how many people, Frieden said.
• How long risk lasts: People will be watched for fever or other possible signs for 21 days.
• What to do if you think you’re at risk: Contact the CDC, Frieden said. State and local health officials in Texas also are working to trace any possible contacts.
— The Associated Press
Timeline for 1st case of Ebola diagnosed in U.S.
The first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the United States flew from Liberia, federal health officials said. The unidentified man, who traveled to Dallas to visit family, is being treated at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.
Sept. 19: Departs from Liberia
Sept. 20: Arrives in the U.S.
Sept. 24: Begins having symptoms
Friday: Seeks medical care
Sunday: Hospitalized and put in isolation
Tuesday: Tests positive for Ebola
— The Associated Press
The Austin connection
A Texas Department of State Health Services lab in Central Austin confirmed Tuesday that a Dallas patient who had recently come from Liberia was infected with Ebola. The Austin lab’s first test for the disease came less than six weeks after it was certified to do so. Health Commissioner Dr. David Lakey said Tuesday outside of the lab that the sample is being held securely.