Texas needs to be better prepared to respond to emerging infectious diseases like Ebola, the director of a new state task force on such diseases said Thursday.
"This is the new normal," Brett Giroir, director of the Texas Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response, said at the conclusion of a nearly four-hour state Capitol hearing.
It was the task force's first public meeting since being formed by Gov. Rick Perry in early October in the wake of the country's first diagnosis of Ebola, which occurred in Dallas. The virus proved fatal for the initial patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, and spread to two nurses who treated him, prompting panic in Texas and elsewhere in the country.
The task force is expected to submit a draft of its findings and recommendations to the governor and the Legislature by Dec. 1. Last week, the panel released some initial recommendations, including a call for the creation of two Ebola treatment facilities. Those have since been established in Dallas and Galveston.
At Thursday's hearing, Giroir clarified that these two centers should not be viewed as the state's only line of defense against Ebola. "This is everybody's problem," said Giroir, who is also CEO of Texas A&M Health Science Center.
Several of the health leaders invited to testify at the hearing cited communication concerns about the Ebola crisis, including how information has been delivered to the public and how it has been shared among health workers.
William Sutker, the chief of infectious disease at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, said there was a general feeling that the dissemination of information has been delayed. While he said he did not want to "throw stones," he said the overall response from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "has been slow."
Alexander Eastman, the interim medical director of the UT Southwestern Medical Center Trauma Center, said the task force should consider establishing a secure network on which responders could communicate about how possible cases are being handled.
Talking to reporters after the hearing, Giroir indicated that some of the task force's recommendations may require approval from the Legislature.
When asked for an example of one such proposal, Giroir said it would be helpful for lawmakers to give local public health officials the ability to enforce orders for possibly infected individuals to stay home. Currently, health officials can issue such directives, but Giroir said they could not be enforced by law enforcement until the patient violated the order — at which point they have already put others at risk.
Disclosure: Baylor Health Care System and Texas A&M University are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.