Ebola patient flew on commercial jet: Why didn’t anyone stop her?

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(CNN) -- The day before she went to the hospital with Ebola symptoms, Amber Vinson was flying halfway across the country on a commercial jet with 132 other people.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Tom Frieden said she never should have stepped foot on the flight, but another federal official told CNN that no one at the agency stopped her.

Before flying from Cleveland to Dallas on Monday, Vinson called the CDC to report an elevated temperature of 99.5 Fahrenheit. She informed the agency that she was getting on a plane, the official said, and she wasn't told not to board the aircraft.

After authorities announced the 29-year-old nurse had been diagnosed with Ebola on Wednesday, they were quick to say guidelines weren't followed when she took the commercial flight.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said he wasn't sure how it happened.

"She was being monitored here in Dallas," he told CNN's "The Situation Room."

"And if she was being monitored correctly, I think she should have never gotten on that flight."

Frieden said Vinson shouldn't have flown because she helped care for Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan at Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas, and because another health worker who cared for Duncan had already been diagnosed with the virus.

"The CDC guidance in this setting outlines the need for what is called controlled movement. That can include a charter plane, a car, but it does not include public transport," Frieden said. "We will from this moment forward ensure that no other individual who is being monitored for exposure undergoes travel in any way other than controlled movement."

The agency also is considering expanding its "no-board" list for people with known infectious diseases to include people being monitored for Ebola, a CDC official said.

CDC guidelines warn airport screeners that travelers returning from West Africa with a temperature of 100.4 Fahrenheit and higher could be showing Ebola symptoms. That threshold is nearly a degree higher than the temperature Vinson reported.

Frieden said that Vinson's slightly elevated temperature was another sign she shouldn't have boarded the aircraft.

Vinson didn't show any symptoms when she got on the flight Frontier Airlines flight from Cleveland to Dallas, the airline said.

Frieden said there's an "extremely low" risk to anyone else on that plane, but the CDC is reaching out to everyone on the flight as part of "extra margins of safety."

Vinson was transferred Wednesday night from the Dallas hospital to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, which has successfully treated two other patients. It is now treating a third: a male health care worker who was infected in Sierra Leone.

Vinson is "ill but clinically stable," Frieden said.

The first Dallas health care worker diagnosed with Ebola, Nina Pham, remains in good condition, officials said. It has not been determined whether she will be transferred to another facility.

Both Dallas health workers had "extensive contact" with Duncan on September 28-30, when he had "extensive production of body fluids" such as vomit and diarrhea, Frieden told reporters in a conference call.

Health care workers who had been exposed to Duncan were undergoing self-monitoring.

CDC wants to interview passengers

Vinson flew from Dallas-Fort Worth to Cleveland on October 10, Frontier Airlines said. On October 13, she headed home.

That's the flight health officials are concerned about, though they stress that the risk of exposure to passengers who were on the plane with Vinson is low, since she did not yet show symptoms. The Ebola virus is not contagious before symptoms set in.

"Because of the proximity in time between the evening flight and first report of illness the following morning, CDC is reaching out to passengers who flew on Frontier Airlines flight 1143 Cleveland to Dallas/Fort Worth Oct. 13," the CDC said in a statement.

The October 13 flight was cleaned thoroughly after it landed, "per our normal procedures which is consistent with CDC guidelines," the airline said. After the airline was informed of the Ebola patient, the plane was removed from service.

After going through decontamination, the plane was going back into service on Wednesday, Ricky Smith, Cleveland's Director of Port Control, said at a news conference. Both the CDC and the airline were comfortable that it was safe to resume operations, he said.

In a sign of growing concerns about Ebola, President Barack Obama canceled trips to New Jersey and Connecticut on Wednesday to convene a meeting at the White House of Cabinet agencies coordinating the government's response to the outbreak. The President canceled planned travel Thursday in order to oversee the response.

Obama said he called Wednesday's meeting after the second nurse's diagnosis.

"We're going to make sure that something like this is not repeated, and that we are monitoring, supervising, overseeing in a much more aggressive way exactly what's taking place in Dallas ... and making sure that the lessons learned are then transmitted to hospitals all across the country," he said.

Hospital denies 'institutional problem'

The news that Vinson contracted Ebola cast further doubt on the hospital's ability to handle the virus and protect employees.

On Wednesday night, a federal official told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta that staffing issues at the hospital were behind the decision to transfer Vinson to Emory.

"What we're hearing is that they are worried about staffing issues and a possible walkout of nurses," the official said.

Some nurses at the hospital have slammed conditions there, telling a union they felt "unsupported, unprepared, lied to and deserted."

It's the same hospital that initially sent Duncan home, even though he had a fever and had traveled from West Africa. By the time he returned to the hospital, his symptoms had worsened. He died while being treated by medical staff, including the two women who have contracted the disease.

"I don't think we have a systematic institutional problem," Dr. Daniel Varga, chief clinical officer of Texas Health Resources, told reporters, facing questions about the hospital's actions.

Medical staff "may have done some things differently with the benefit of what we know today," he said, adding, "no one wants to get this right more than our hospital."

People in Vinson's office building were informed when officials went door to door, and also through early morning reverse 911 calls, officials said.

The health care worker had no pets, authorities said.

Official: Duncan should have been moved

An official close to the situation says that in hindsight, Duncan should have been transferred immediately to either Emory University Hospital or Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

Those hospitals are among only four in the country that have biocontainment units and have been preparing for years to treat a highly infectious disease such as Ebola.

"If we knew then what we know now about this hospital's ability to safely care for these patients, then we would have transferred him to Emory or Nebraska," the official told CNN senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen.

"I think there are hospitals that are more than ready, but I think there are some that are not."

4 comments

  • Sheila Moyet

    This entire issue can be blamed on the CDC. The minute they knew they had an Ebola case on their hands, the CDC should have stepped in and took over making sure that all the proper protocols were in place and that trained staff was present. Instead they let the hospital float on it’s own. Knowing the seriousness of this virus, the CDC should clearly have taken control. Instead they deceived us and told us not to worry and that it was under control.

  • Douglas M Klug

    Due to multiple health problems I have spent a significant amount of time in 5 different SW PA hospitals and one nursing home (about 3 years as an in hospital patient out of the last 13 years) and I can provide some significant insight into infectious controls. I was infected with MRCSA, C.DIFF, and VRE during one of the early stays during this 13 year period of time. The transmission of these is by direct contact just like ebola but ebola is more virulent. The controls that were to be used on me were and are germicidal hand washing before and after patient contact, gown, gloves, mask, and possibly eye protection. Majority of the time the nursing and other staff including doctors did not follow the protocols for infectious diseases. And to make matters worse, cleanliness also was not a top priority, staff were not given adequate time by administrations to properly clean and disinfect patient rooms.As a result these super bugs are spreading at a nearly uncontrolled rate throughout health care facilities. If they can’t control these, what is going to happen with ebola? Think about it!.

  • barb newberg

    Dr. Tom Frieden needs to step away as head of CDC. At this point, he is doing too much damage. Instead of being focused on capping the epidemic in West Africa, we are mopping up from all the CDC mistakes here in the US.People are dropping like flies over there. It is a great human tragedy unfolding before our eyes in the three affected countries, and for our part, we can’t even keep an exposed nurse with symptoms from getting on a plane. This is a National disgrace! Find a serious, aggressive leader to replace Frieden and while you are at it, impose a mandatory 21-day quarantine on anyone leaving the affected three countries by any mode of transit, to any other country, not just the US.

  • hscorpio

    I have absolutely zero faith in the competency of government agencies to protect the citizens of the US from further cases within the 50 states. The CDC has not demonstrated either urgency or competency in this matter. And the fact that our borders are pretty much wide open doesn’t help any.

    That Obama is on the case now does nothing to increase my level of comfort. His pattern is a lot of bluster with little action of consequence. He’ll make a show out of doing nothing.

Comments are closed.

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