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After Ebola Case, Lawmakers to Examine Public Health Readiness

In the wake of what some have called a botched response to the first known case of Ebola in the United States, Texas lawmakers will meet Tuesday afternoon in Austin to examine the state's public health infrastructure.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal, and Alexa Ura, The Texas Tribune
Texas Sen. Charles Schwertner, Dr. Brett Giroir and Gov. Rick Perry at an Ebola press conference at the Texas Capitol on Oct. 6, 2014.

In the wake of what some have called a botched response to the first known case of Ebola in the United States, Texas lawmakers will meet Tuesday afternoon in Austin to examine the state's public health infrastructure. 

“I do think we have adequate resources, but those adequate resources can always be enhanced," state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said in an interview last week. “It takes constant pruning and constant oversight to make sure everybody’s on the same page," added Schwertner, whose committee will hold the hearing at the state Capitol. 

Schwertner called for the hearing after Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian visiting his girlfriend in Dallas, was diagnosed with the virus at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital there last Tuesday. That prompted public health experts to express concerns that Texas is not prepared to deal with an emergency like the spread of infectious disease, and a few days later, a blistering report from the Sunset Commission said the state's health and human services system needs an overhaul.

Initial missteps by the hospital in diagnosing Duncan — he was at first sent home with antibiotics before returning in much worse condition two days later, despite having told the hospital he had traveled from Ebola-stricken Liberia — sparked further criticism, along with shifting reports of how many people may have had close contact with him and therefore may be at risk of contracting the virus. So did delays in cleaning the East Dallas apartment where Duncan stayed, and where his girlfriend and three of her relatives were ordered to remain for days after his diagnosis alongside contaminated materials like his soiled bedsheets and clothing. 

Dallas County officials apologized for those delays and have since moved the family members to another location. The apartment has also been cleaned, which officials said was a challenge because they had trouble finding a contractor. The cleaning service also had problems getting state permits to dispose of the soiled materials.

In a news conference Monday, Gov. Rick Perry acknowledged that errors were made and announced the creation of an infectious disease task force.

On Tuesday, lawmakers will hear from state public health officials and infectious disease specialists from the University of Texas and Texas A&M University, according to Schwertner's office. 

Schwertner expressed particular interest in the coordination between federal, state and local public health agencies. That's been raised as an issue in Texas by the Sunset Commission and public health experts, especially when it comes to the relationship between the state and local health departments, because the state does not track departments that it doesn't fund. Less than half of the estimated number of local health departments in Texas were funded by the state in the last fiscal year. 

“We need to constantly focus to make sure that our coordination between the federal level, the state level and the local level … are working in concert to make sure that we are protecting the health, safety and welfare of our citizens," he said. 

Over the weekend, officials said Duncan's condition at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital had deteriorated from "serious" to "critical." They also said a few dozen people who had come in contact with him were being monitored daily for their temperature and potential symptoms, and that 10 of those people were considered to be at "high risk" of contracting the virus. Those include the people he was staying with at the East Dallas apartment and health care workers initially involved in his care. 

None of those people has shown symptoms of the virus, officials said.  

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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