Texas lawmakers act on what was learned with Ebola scare

Texas State Capitol

AUSTIN (AP/KXAN) — Texas’ top doctor could impose immediate mandatory quarantine on patients infected with contagious diseases under sweeping new proposed legislation unveiled Wednesday, as the state that had America’s first diagnosed case of Ebola aims to bolster its response to future outbreaks.

Containing more than a dozen major provisions and sponsored by Sen. Charles Schwertner, head of the powerful Senate Health and Human Services Committee, the bill grew out of the recommendations of a special task force Texas formed after Liberian visitor Thomas Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola at a Dallas hospital.

“The public health and safety of Texas families, is the highest responsibility of the state of Texas,” said Schwertner.

Duncan died Oct. 8, and two nurses who treated him also fell ill but survived. Texas has since been declared Ebola-free.

“Unlike many states around the country still, and in my opinion the federal government itself, Senator Schwertner and his colleagues have taken to heart the lessons learned and the reality that we will have another infectious disease challenge in Texas,” task force director Brett Giroir, CEO of the Texas A&M Health Science Center, said at a state Capitol news conference. “It may be Ebola or it may be any of a number of other infectious diseases.”

Texas’ health commissioner already can issue “control orders” restricting the travel and movement of people infected with, or at risk of spreading, infectious diseases. But there are no legal consequences until someone violates those orders.

Former Gov. Rick Perry said that provision was so problematic that it prompted him in October to urge President Barack Obama to impose an air travel ban from countries hardest-hit by Ebola.

The new bill allows for immediate quarantine enforcement and says police can detain individuals under a “control order” for up to 48 hours. It should enjoy wide support in the Legislature.

Dr. Philip Huang from Travis County Health watched as the Ebola virus spread through West Africa and touched down in Dallas. He constantly monitors other diseases like measles, TB and the flu, which he considers more contagious and more of a threat than Ebola.

“There needs to be that investment and support for these prevention activities so we don’t have outbreaks of illness,” said Huang, who always looks for new tools to keep Texans healthy. “These are our core public health activities that we do every day.”

Perry left office last month but plans to announce an expected 2016 presidential run soon. The issue flared up even more publicly for another likely 2016 hopeful, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, when he imposed a mandatory quarantine on health workers returning from West Africa. Nurse Kaci Hickox, who made a flight connection in Newark, was quarantined in a hospital isolation tent even though she tested negative for Ebola.

Hickox complained her civil rights were violated, but Christie was undeterred.

Schwertner said the Texas bill better prepares the state to store and transport medical waste, while granting it more authority to test pets and livestock who may have been exposed to infectious diseases. It also directs health centers to stockpile protective gear and more fully inform first-responders of what they will be coping with in patients they may treat.

“Texas is not going to rest just because the crisis of the moment has abated,” Schwertner said.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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