Dallas DA: Ebola patient could face local charges

DALLAS -- The Dallas County District Attorney's Office is looking into whether charges should be brought against Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan.

"We are looking into whether or not Duncan knowingly and intentionally exposed the public to a deadly virus, making this a criminal matter for Dallas County," said DA's office spokesperson Debbie Denmon in an email.

Duncan, a Liberian national, came to the U.S. on a flight departing Liberia on September 19 and arrived in Dallas on Sept. 20. The New York Times has reported Duncan had direct contact with a woman stricken by Ebola in Liberia on Sept. 15.

According to the Times, Duncan helped carry the woman, who was seven months pregnant and unable to walk, to and from a taxi taking her to a hospital in Monrovia, Liberia's capital. The Associated Press reported it was thought at the time that the pregnant woman's symptoms were related to her pregnancy.

Duncan was given a health questionnaire at the airport in Liberia before getting on United Airlines flights to Brussels then on to Washington Dulles before coming to Dallas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said during a teleconference Thursday they will be investigating whether Duncan lied on that questionnaire.

According to the Associated Press, Duncan wrote "no" in a Liberian airport when asked if he had been in contact with anyone suffering from Ebola. Liberian airport officials say Duncan will be prosecuted after he returns home.

After arriving in Dallas, Duncan first showed symptoms of Ebola on Sept. 24 then went to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital late in the evening on Sept. 25. Hospital officials say Duncan told a nurse that he had been in Africa, but that information was not passed on to all of the staff who saw and diagnosed the patient.

Hospital officials said Thursday night that the information was not passed on due to the way the hospital's electronic health records (EHR) are kept, but then backed away from that in a statement issued Friday night.

"[T]he patient's travel history was documented and available to the full care team in the electronic health record (EHR), including within the physician's workflow," said Texas Health Resources Public Relations Director Wendell Watson. "There was no flaw in the EHR in the way the physician and nursing portions interacted related to this event."

Duncan was sent home from the hospital with antibiotics on Sept. 26, and could've been in contact with others before he was taken back to Texas Health Presbyterian in an ambulance on Sept. 28. At that point, Duncan was isolated and proper precautions have been used with the patient since, hospital officials say.

If Duncan is charged in Dallas, charges in the case would be similar to those brought against an individual who knew he or she was HIV positive and intentionally had unprotected sex with others, the DA's office said.

Historically, defendants in those cases faced aggravated assault charges.

According to Denmon, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins said it would be "irresponsible" not to look into charges.

Denmon said the DA's office must "tread lightly," due to the unprecedented nature of the Ebola case.

"[W]e could not place an Ebola virus patient into the county jail and risk infecting others," Denmon wrote. "It's a pretty unique situation since we have never experienced such a case involving a deadly Ebola virus."


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