Dallas County officials on Monday expressed relief with the end of Ebola monitoring for most of the first group of 48 people who had contact with Thomas Eric Duncan, who died of the virus on Oct. 8.
“Today is a milestone day, it’s a hurdle that we need to get over,” Mayor Mike Rawlings said at a morning briefing.
Duncan, 42, was admitted to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas on Sept. 28, and the group began their 21-day monitoring soon after, including daily visits from public health workers who took their temperatures daily and checked for other symptoms of the deadly virus.
Two nurses have since been diagnosed — Nina Pham, 26, and Amber Vinson, 29 — but no one else in the group showed any symptoms, officials said.
As of midnight Sunday, 43 of the 48 original contacts were “Ebola-free,” according to Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.
“The time period for them to get Ebola has lapsed; it is over,” Jenkins said.
One person in the ambulance used to take Duncan to the hospital was expected to be cleared late Monday, Jenkins said.
Four additional people, all healthcare workers who saw Duncan the day he was admitted to the hospital and afterward, were expected to be cleared in the next few days, he said.
An additional 120 people in Dallas will continue to be monitored for Ebola symptoms, with the last removed from monitoring on Nov. 7, which Rawlings called “the magic date.”
State health commissioner David Lakey released a statement noting that, “Epidemiologists have worked around the clock to call and visit people who may have had any exposure, to make sure they were asymptotic and doing well ... I’m happy we can tell people they are free and clear of monitoring. It provides a measure of relief and reassurance.”
Gov. Rick Perry welcomed the announcement with “guarded optimism” and said in a statement that “we look forward to the day when the remaining individuals can also be removed from active monitoring.
In a move to expedite Ebola testing, county public health officials began on Sunday conducting tests in Dallas rather than sending samples to state headquarters in Austin.
Jenkins urged Dallasites to accept those emerging from monitoring, particularly 10 individuals considered “high risk” due to their close contact with Duncan. Among the 10 are four people who have been confined under a court order: Duncan’s fiancé, Louise Troh, 54, her 13-year-old son, a relative and friend.
“They are people who have been through an incredible ordeal,” Jenkins said. “Treat them the way you would want your own family treated.”
For the first time, officials disclosed where the four have been staying: a gated Catholic retreat in the city’s Oak Cliff neighborhood, which Rawlings described as “a respite for this family.”
The four planned to remain there Monday as Troh’s pastor searched for an apartment in her former neighborhood of East Dallas, Jenkins said.
Seven children who had been monitored for Ebola and Troh’s son are expected to return to five Dallas public schools on Tuesday.
“As a parent, I am extremely concerned,” Jenkins said, noting that students, particularly in middle school, can be vicious.
“I need your help, parents,” he said.
“This, I believe, is a defining moment for Dallas. The world is watching Dallas. Dallas must determine whether we deal with this with grace and compassion,” Jenkins said.
For Troh and her family, Monday was, “a jubilant day,” according to the Rev. George Mason of Wilshire Baptist Church, who visited with them Sunday.
“They are really looking forward to getting out and resuming their lives,” Mason said.
Mason said Troh was not doing interviews Monday, wanted privacy, but plans to write a book about her experience.
“She would really like to tell her own story in her own time,” he said.
Mason has talked with Troh’s son about returning to school, and said the boy is eager and prepared to be back in class.
“There is some fear and foreboding in the community,” Mason acknowledged. “I believe Dallas has risen to the occasion on this. I believe we realize now this is really about who we are, not who these people are. This is a test.”
School officials said they have been meeting with parents and students at the schools where the eight students will be returning Tuesday, and that they are prepared to accept them.
Added security will be provided and extra nurses will be available to answer questions, Supt. Mike Miles said.
Counselors have already met with the eight returning students to prepare them, urging the children to reach out to them for help if they have problems.
“We want them to feel like normal students,” Miles said.
The two nurses diagnosed with Ebola have been transferred out of Dallas to hospitals specially equipped to handle Ebola patients in Atlanta and Bethesda, Md.
Their families asked that their conditions not be disclosed Monday, Jenkins said, but he noted that they were able to communicate with family and friends via FaceTime.
Vinson’s family released a statement late Sunday insisting that she was given clearance to board a Frontier Airlines jet to visit relatives in Ohio after she developed a fever during monitoring, a decision officials have acknowledged was a mistake that may have exposed more people who are now being monitored.
Jenkins apologized to Vinson and her family for implications that she erred in making the trip.
“Amber Vinson did nothing wrong,” Jenkins said, adding that Vinson consulted county public health staff first, who passed the decision “up the chain of command” to officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
“The policy leaders including myself were not aware of the decision to allow a person with a fever who had Ebola contact to get on a airplane. That was a mistake,” Jenkins said, adding, “It was clear I was not happy about it” and “I don’t ever want it to happen again.”
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