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Giroir Prepping State for Ebola or Next Virus

Though Texas has weathered its first Ebola crisis, the virus is expected to return, said the new head of a state task force on infectious diseases. Brett Giroir is calling upon his unique background to prepare the state for when that happens.

Texas Sen. Charles Schwertner, Dr. Brett Giroir and Gov. Rick Perry at an Ebola press conference at the Texas Capitol on Oct. 6, 2014.

Texas recently closed the book on its first cases of Ebola. The remaining people still being monitored after having come into contact with the man who died of the disease in Dallas last month, or with two nurses who contracted it, were cleared a week ago. But the virus, or something like it, can be expected to return, said the new head of a state task force on infectious diseases.

Brett Giroir, the CEO of the Texas A&M Health Science Center, described the first case as a shot across the bow. 

“We live in a global world,” he said. “We’re an airline away from anywhere. It’s going to be Ebola, or it’s going to be other diseases.”

Whatever it proves to be, Giroir will play a significant role in shaping the state’s response. Gov. Rick Perry tapped the 54-year-old biomedical researcher last month to lead the Texas Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response.

It is the latest in a career full of prestigious posts for a man from humble beginnings. As Perry put it, Giroir “grew up in a lower-middle-class part of Louisiana, but smarter than a tree full of owls.”

The first member of his family to go to college, Giroir earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard University and his medical degree from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He later became an office director at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which invests in technology research for the Defense Department.

There, he caught the eye of Guy Diedrich, then a Texas A&M University System vice chancellor, who was looking for someone to oversee efforts to create a biotechnology corridor in the Brazos Valley.

Giroir joined the system in 2008 and, as the vice chancellor for strategic initiatives, led a successful effort to win a $285.6 million federal contract to establish a center for developing medical responses to pandemic diseases and bioterror threats. That center is now part of the health science center, which he has run since last year.

“Brett has been working, and excelling, his entire career for this sort of moment,” Diedrich, who now works for Cisco Systems, said of the recent crisis.

Overall, Giroir said, the state’s brush with the virus “went pretty well” — “but only because a lot of people made incredible efforts to make it go well despite systems that were not prepared for it,” he said.

Among the biggest missteps, he said, were public assurances that the virus would not spread beyond Thomas Eric Duncan, the person with the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States. That led to distrust when it did spread, Giroir said.

While doctors initially missed the meaning of Duncan’s symptoms, Giroir added, “that will never happen again in the U.S. The first patient is always the hardest to diagnose.”

Giroir went on to say: “It’s tragic that Duncan died. People die with Ebola. There are things we wish would have happened. I’m not sure he would have survived under any circumstances.”

Though the first report from the task force is not due until Dec. 1, it has already issued some recommendations. The task force called for the establishment of two specialized Ebola treatment facilities and new protocols for determining if and when people need to be quarantined. “You do what you need to do,” Giroir said, “but it should be as least intrusive on people’s lives and liberty as possible given what you know about the science.”

Giroir said that some coming task force proposals “relating to how we layer local, state and federal control” could prove controversial. Some would require legislative action to implement.

He also argued for a national equivalent of his position, focusing on all biological threats, not just Ebola. The two previous White House administrations had a special assistant for biodefense.

“For the task force, I’m in charge,” Giroir said. “There’s not that analogy at the federal level.”

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

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