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Health Officials Watch Those Who Had Contact With Dallas Ebola Patient


There've been some major developments in the case of Thomas Eric Duncan. He's the man who carried Ebola from Liberia to Dallas. This morning the county health department there said that it's looking at up to 100 people who may have come in contact with Duncan. Meanwhile, some of his family members have been put in quarantine.

Joining us from Dallas to discuss the latest is NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. And Geoff, let's begin with that number 100 contacts. How much risk is there that one of them might have Ebola?

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Roughly a dozen or so individuals had direct contact with the patient when he was sick. They are definitely at risk. Public health officials have cautioned that we may have a second case. And the average incubation period is eight to 10 days, so we could see that case any time now. The other individuals are people who are less likely to have come in really close, direct contact with the Ebola patient. Ebola is only transmitted when individuals have symptoms, so these people are much less likely to be at risk. But it's important to keep an eye on them.

SIEGEL: And why were family members put into quarantine?

BRUMFIEL: Public health officials really want to monitor this family extremely closely. They want to be taking their temperatures twice a day. And what health officials are saying is that four of these individuals were coming and going from the apartment and they weren't always available for these checks. So they felt they had to put this order in place. They're also doing it to try and build public confidence.

SIEGEL: Is quarantine, by the way, a legal status? Can people be legally required to stay at home?

BRUMFIEL: Yes. Quarantine laws have been with us for hundreds of years. Even before the U.S. became independent, individual cities like Boston and Baltimore had their own quarantine laws. Basically it comes down to public safety. If a person's deemed to pose a risk, it's legal to quarantine them.

SIEGEL: And is it considered the right thing to do, from a public health perspective?

BRUMFIEL: Well, that's a much harder to question to answer. I mean, on the one hand, these individuals can't spread Ebola if they're confined to their home. But on the other, they're probably the ones at highest risk of getting Ebola next and they're especially at risk because the apartment hasn't been fully decontaminated.

Here's Clay Jenkins, the highest elected official in Dallas County.

CLAY JENKINS: My understanding is there is a garbage bag of the man's clothes and belongings. They've got a bag of household trash and they have mattresses pushed against the wall.

BRUMFIEL: Now, bags of clothing and trash - if they're contaminated with fluids from the Ebola patient, that could put these people at risk of contamination. Also, there's a risk they could contaminate each other if one of them's carrying Ebola and starts to display symptoms.

Now, on top of that, there's a message this sends - these people have a law enforcement officer posted outside their apartment. They can't leave and they can't have visitors. Other potential contacts may see that and say, I don't want that to happen to me and they may avoid public health officials. That could make people less likely to come forward and it could hinder efforts to prevent an outbreak from occurring.

SIEGEL: So what happens now?

BRUMFIEL: Local health officials are going to keep carefully monitoring the close contacts of Thomas Eric Duncan. Meanwhile, they're also going to be going through the dozens of other people to try and determine the risk of each individual. I think if there is an outbreak, if this does spread, these actions will help to contain it quickly. But, there's still a huge problem in West Africa. The latest numbers from the World Health Organization show that well over 6,000 people have been affected and that number's growing really fast. Now, until that outbreak is brought under control, it's very possible that Ebola could show up in other cities pretty much anywhere in the world.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel in Dallas, where he's covering developments in the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the U.S. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.