Months after three Ebola diagnoses stirred fears in Dallas, the Texas Senate on Tuesday approved legislation aiming to clarify how the state should respond to its next infectious disease outbreak.
The proposal, Senate Bill 538, would allow the governor to declare a state of infectious disease emergency, create stockpiles of protective equipment, and grant health officials greater power to halt public transportation and detain individuals who may be infected.
“The bill establishes a clear command structure for future emergency situations,” said Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, its sponsor. “This legislation is not simply a reaction to Ebola, but rather it’s a proactive action to protect our state from the next public disease threat.”
With a 26-4 vote, the Senate sent the bill to the House.
The legislation stems mostly from recommendations by a task force established by then-Gov. Rick Perry in October 2014 after a man in Dallas became the first person in the United States diagnosed with Ebola. The bill is designed to fix problems — highlighted by the Ebola scare — with the state’s ability to respond to an outbreak.
Schwertner, the chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said he was not aware of other states that have given governors similar powers on infectious diseases. “This can hopefully be a model for the rest of the country," he said.
Thomas Eric Duncan was sent home from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas after his first visit in September, despite the fact that he had traveled in Liberia, an Ebola hot zone, and showed symptoms of the virus. Duncan returned to the hospital days later and was placed in intensive care, where he died on Oct. 8.
Two nurses who treated Duncan contracted the virus — they have since been declared Ebola-free — and the hospital was criticized for misdiagnosing Duncan and releasing him after his first visit.
Under current law, the head of the Department of State Health Services can order a potentially exposed or infectious person to remain at home, but the state can only enforce that order after the person has already broken it. The legislation would plug that gap.
“We saw a lack of clarity as far as who was calling the shots,” Schwertner said.
A few lawmakers expressed concerns on the Senate floor that the changes could complicate decisions at the local level or infringe on the civil liberties of Texans suspected of being contagious.
“This goes just a bit too far for me,” said Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville. “It allows the peace officers to detain without warrant, individuals – to actually hold them – without even telling them.”
Aiming to address some concerns, the chamber approved an amendment by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, that tightened the bill’s definition of a disease that triggers an infectious disease emergency declaration.
The new definition says such a disease must have resulted in or be likely to result in "severe or life-threatening illness or death" for those infected. Also, the health officials must be unable to contain the disease through existing methods, resulting in a high rate of mortality.
“We want to make sure this is very tightly worded,” said Kolkhorst, a co-sponsor of the bill. “Texas leads in a lot of ways, and hopefully this is one of them.”