San Antonio city officials sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a suite of other federal agencies Monday, asking a federal court to immediately raise the standards for releasing people quarantined at Lackland Air Force Base because of potential exposure to the new coronavirus.
The city asked that quarantined individuals undergo three tests for COVID-19 — a departure from previous cases in which the criteria was two tests done 24 hours apart — and be quarantined for as long as 28 days going forward.
A federal judge said the court shared "the concerns expressed" in the lawsuit but shot down the request, saying the city doesn't have the authority to "second-guess" the CDC's criteria, according to a San Antonio Express-News report.
The request came after an individual, who twice tested negative for the virus, was released into the city and was later found to have a “weakly positive” subsequent test result for COVID-19. City officials also asked a judge to order agencies to "specifically outline the required protocols prior to releasing the individuals," including communication to state and local officials.
"The urgency of this situation requires emergency relief as the city was placed with these factual circumstances based on the unorganized process and procedures for releasing of the evacuees which were already planned, but were evidently not proper with the release of an infected evacuee based on lack of communication," attorneys for the city wrote.
The lawsuit came the same day Mayor Ron Nirenberg declared a public health emergency over COVID-19 and demanded that 120 people who were expected to be released from a two-week quarantine at the Air Force base be held longer for additional medical testing. He also banned quarantine evacuees from entering his city.
"Pursuant to the statutory authority ... I, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, declare that ingress into and travel through the City of San Antonio from Lackland by those persons that have been quarantined in the facility is not permitted," Nirenberg wrote in the declaration of public health emergency. "No previously quarantined person shall be permitted to enter the City of San Antonio until further notice."
Under state law, the mayor of a municipality may control who comes in or out of a disaster area.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff also declared a public health emergency.
As of Monday afternoon, the CDC had not yet informed Nirenberg whether the evacuees will be released from Lackland despite his calls to extend the quarantine, a spokesperson for Bexar County told The Texas Tribune. The evacuees' release from Lackland Air Force Base had been put on hold as of Monday afternoon, one quarantined person told the San Antonio-Express News.
The CDC has not responded to requests for comment.
The base is one of four military bases where the federal government has been sending patients who were possibly exposed to the virus in Wuhan, China, and on a cruise ship in Japan.
"Local health professionals, in whom I have the utmost confidence, are working very hard to prevent the spread of this virus here in San Antonio, and we simply cannot have a screw-up like this from our federal partners," Nirenberg said at a press conference Monday morning.
"As a result of this, I strongly believe that all the individuals who were scheduled to be released from the 14-day quarantine today should be retested and kept in quarantine until the results confirm that they are negative for the coronavirus," he added. "We’re working with our state and federal partners to achieve that result. And I will do everything within my power to make sure that that happens."
During the press conference, Anita K. Kurian, assistant director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, said the patient who was released was "in the community" for about 12 hours and that the agency has identified and contacted every place the patient could have visited.
"We’ve completed a risk assessment, and I can say pretty much everybody has been deemed to be low risk except for a few selected health care personnel who were directly in contact with her at the time of her release," she said.
According to San Antonio Metro Health officials, 18 people have been identified as coming in contact with the patient. Sixteen of those people are considered at low risk for exposure, while two are considered at medium risk.
The patient was dropped off Saturday afternoon at the Holiday Inn Express Airport at 91 NE Loop 410 by a third-party driver, according to Metro Health. The patient entered their room then later returned to the hotel lobby and requested a shuttle to North Star Mall, where they visited Dillard’s, Talbots and Swarovski.
The person mostly sat by themselves in the mall's food court, and the risk of exposure at both locations is low, Kurian said. Still, health officials requested a "deep cleaning" of the mall, she said.
A spokesperson for Brookfield Properties, which owns the mall, said the company was notified Monday morning about the situation and planned to close North Star for about 24 hours.
"While the shopping center had been cleaned several times using CDC-recommended products, as an abundance of caution, we made the decision to close North Star Mall temporarily to allow for a further deep cleaning of the center," Lindsay Kahn said in a statement. "We want to reiterate that there is a low risk to the public, but we are taking extra precautions for the well-being of our shopping center community."
After returning to the hotel on the shuttle at 7:30 p.m., the patient reentered their room. At 2 a.m. Sunday, the patient was transported back to the Texas Center for Infectious Disease in a specialized ambulance, according to Metro Health.
“It was quite a frustration Sunday all day long, trying to get the CDC to say what happened,” Wolff said at Monday's press conference.
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, said he and other lawmakers are pushing for supplemental funding for coronavirus from the federal government. Hurd said the funding, upwards of $8 billion would go to creating more tests for coronavirus and to cities dealing with the virus.
“One of the issues we need to ensure happens in that supplemental is that these communities are reimbursed for the role that they're playing in combating this virus or dealing with the aftermath of it,” Hurd said.
Also on Monday, Abbott demanded that the CDC halt the scheduled release of the cruise ship evacuees and perform additional tests for the virus going forward.
“The protocol before now has been … if there were two consecutive negative tests, meaning that the person was showing no suggestion of having coronavirus, they would be subject to being released,” Abbott said. “That was one of the mistakes here, because what happened here, there was a third test that was conducted on the woman who was released, she was released before the test results came back, that third test showed that she in fact did have the coronavirus, and so our demand in here is that going forward, the CDC will do three tests as opposed to two.”
Abbott's office said the state made its requests in a letter sent to the CDC by John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services. At the same time, Abbott said he had a conversation with Vice President Mike Pence, who is overseeing the coronavirus response for the White House, and that his office has had multiple discussions with federal staff.
There are 11 people remaining at the Texas Center for Infectious Disease who have tested positive for “very mild cases of the coronavirus,” Abbott said. No one in Texas has tested positive for the virus outside the quarantine.
Also on Monday, five Dallas police officers were temporarily sent home after arresting a man on Sunday with possible coronavirus, according to The Dallas Morning News.
“Per our contagious disease policy, all five officers that came in contact with the arrested person were notified of the potential exposure and advised not to return to work until further notice,” Dallas police said in a statement, which was updated Monday to say the officers would be returning to work at their next available shift.
Juan Pablo Garnham and Edgar Walters contributed to this report.