Feds: Nurse with Ebola was cleared to fly

Jim Kuhnhenn; and Emily Schmall
Associated Press

A federal health official said late Wednesday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cleared a nurse who has Ebola to fly from Cleveland, Ohio, to Dallas.

CDC spokesman David Daigle said Amber Joy Vinson spoke with the CDC official responsible for monitoring her health before she boarded the flight Monday.

Daigle says the 29-year-old Vinson reported her temperature was below 100.4 degrees and she had no symptoms. Ebola sufferers aren’t contagious until they show symptoms.

The official said she could board Frontier Airlines Flight 1143.

Vinson is the second Dallas nurse to become infected after treating a Liberian man who died of Ebola last week.

CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden says Vinson traveled to Ohio at the weekend before she knew that her colleagues had been diagnosed with Ebola.

Earlier Wednesday, President Barack Obama vowed that his administration would provide “much more aggressive” monitoring of Ebola cases in the United States and warned that in an age of frequent travel the disease could spread globally if the world doesn’t respond to the “raging epidemic in West Africa.”

In his most urgent comments on the spread of the disease, Obama also sought to ease growing fears in the U.S. in the aftermath of a second nurse being diagnosed with Ebola after treating a patient in a Dallas hospital. He said he had directed the CDC to step up its response to new cases.

“We want a rapid response team, a SWAT team essentially, from the CDC to be on the ground as quickly as possible, hopefully within 24 hours, so that they are taking the local hospital step by step though what needs to be done,” he said.

Obama spoke after canceling a political campaign trip to convene a session of top Cabinet officials involved in the Ebola response both in the U.S. and in the West African region where the disease has been spreading at alarming rates.

Later, House Speaker John Boehner said Obama should consider a temporary ban on travel to the United States from the West African countries afflicted by the virus and that the president should weigh other measures “as doubts about the security of our air travel systems grow.”

Administration officials have resisted a travel ban, saying that adequate screening measures are already in place — only once has an Ebola victim flown into the U.S. — and that a ban could hinder assistance to the afflicted.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has scheduled a hearing Thursday on the outbreak.

Hours before Obama canceled his trip, officials confirmed that a second nurse at a Dallas had tested positive for the virus after treating an Ebola patient who later died. The disclosure raised new fears regarding the exposure by other health care workers. Officials also revealed that the nurse was on a commercial flight the evening before being diagnosed.

Though it was not clear how the nurse contracted the virus, the case represented just the latest instance in which the disease that has ravaged one of the poorest corners of the earth — West Africa — also managed to find weak spots in one of the world’s most advanced medical systems.

The second nurse was identified as 29-year-old Vinson. Medical records provided to the Associated Press by Thomas Eric Duncan’s family showed she inserted catheters, drew blood and dealt with Duncan’s body fluids.

Duncan, who was diagnosed with Ebola after coming to the U.S. from Liberia, died Oct. 8.

Kent State University in Ohio, where three of Vinson’s relatives work, confirmed she was the latest patient.

Even though the nurse did not report having a fever until Tuesday, the day after she returned home, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said she should not have boarded a commercial flight.

The nurse also knew before heading home that another nurse, Nina Pham, had been diagnosed with Ebola, and she had a slightly elevated temperature — 99.5 degrees, according to government officials.

While in Cleveland, she was contacted by health officials and told that her health would need to be more closely monitored for Ebola, the CDC said. But she was cleared to fly.

From now on, CDC Director Tom Frieden said, no one else involved in Duncan’s care will be allowed to travel “other than in a controlled environment.” He cited guidelines that permit charter flights or travel by car but no public transportation.

On its website, the CDC says all people possibly exposed to Ebola should restrict their travels — including by avoiding commercial flights — for 21 days.

Ebola patients are not considered contagious until they have symptoms. Frieden said it was unlikely that others on the plane were at risk because the nurse was not vomiting or bleeding.

Even so, the CDC is alerting the 132 passengers who were aboard Frontier Airlines Flight 1143 from Cleveland to Dallas-Fort Worth on Monday “because of the proximity in time between the evening flight and first report of illness the following morning.” Officials are asking passengers to call the health agency so they can be monitored. The nurse flew from Dallas to Cleveland on Friday, Oct. 10.

Kent State said it was asking the workers related to Vinson to stay off campus for 21 days “out of an abundance of caution.”

Her Ebola diagnosis was confirmed Wednesday.

The CDC’s investigation suggests that health care workers were at highest risk from Sept. 28 to Sept. 30, the three days before Duncan was diagnosed. Both nurses who contracted Ebola worked on those days and had extensive contact with him when he had vomiting and diarrhea, Frieden said.

Medical records indicate that the workers wore protective equipment, including gowns, gloves and face shields during that time. The first mention in the records that they wore Hazmat suits was on Sept. 30.

The second nurse was transferred to Atlanta Wednesday evening for treatment in a special bio-containment unit at Emory University Hospital.