A week after an Atlanta attorney with an extremely drug resistant form of tuberculosis was taken into custody, congressional investigations are uncovering key mistakes made by CDC and Department of Homeland Security officials.
After public health officials placed Andrew Speaker in isolation, CDC head Julie Gerberding publicly applauded her agency's efforts to track him down.
"Our system works very well, and I really want to end by thanking the public health officials from around the world who came together … to really work through the complexities here and take steps necessary to protect the public's health," Gerberding said.
But since then, investigators for the House Homeland Security Committee have found that government officials missed several key opportunities to prevent Speaker from leaving and re-entering the United States last month.
On May 22, four days after test results indicated that Speaker was infected with a rare and deadly strain of TB, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decided that they would attach a note to his passport indicating that he posed a public health risk. Speaker was already in Europe for his wedding and honeymoon at the time, and instead of notifying the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection headquarters in Washington, CDC officials approached the agency's office in Atlanta, where Speaker lives.
By May 24, CDC had tracked Speaker down in Rome and instructed him not to fly home on a commercial aircraft. But a breakdown in communication between CDC and Homeland Security resulted in a delay in adding Speaker's name to the "no fly" list. By the time officials had placed him on the list, Speaker had flown to Canada and driven across the border to New York in a rented car.
Finally, despite the fact that Speaker's passport had been flagged with a message that he should be detained, a customs and border patrol agent allowed him to pass through the Champlain, N.Y., border crossing.
"I think they could've done an awful lot better," said Barry Bloom, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health.
"This is an example where the system didn't stop the case," he said. "The case continued to be, in principle, infectious, although it sounds to me not very infectious."
The CDC and Homeland Security will face two congressional committees Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Speaker, who is undergoing treatment in Denver, was deemed "relatively noncontagious" by his doctors after his third sputum test came back negative.