More than five weeks after the first Ebola diagnosis in the United States — which sparked two other cases and the beginnings of a panic that stretched from Texas to Ohio and reverberated in Washington, D.C. — the last person connected to the country’s initial Ebola experience is expected to be deemed safe from the virus.
Even as the focus on Ebola has shifted from Texas (where the first three cases were seen) to New York (where a high-profile case recently occurred), this is a noteworthy moment. In symbolic terms, it marks the closing of that particular public-health chapter; in a more concrete sense, it simply means that a person who could have been exposed to a deadly virus escaped infection.
The first person diagnosed with Ebola in this country was Thomas Duncan, a Liberian man who flew to Texas before being diagnosed Sept. 30. He died eight days later, the only Ebola patient treated in the United States to die so far. The two nurses who treated him at a Dallas hospital and were infected have both been treated and declared safe. On Friday, 38 days after Duncan’s diagnosis, one last person connected to the Texas Ebola saga will reach the last day of their monitoring period. People infected with Ebola develop symptoms within 21 days, which is why anyone who may have had contact with an infected person needs to be monitored for symptoms until that window has passed.
Health officials have monitored a total of 177 people in Texas for contact with one of the three people diagnosed with Ebola in that state (or with any of their specimens or other means of infection). Dozens of people who had possible contact with Duncan were cleared last month, and the only people who tested positive for the illness were Nina Pham and Amber Vinson, two nurses who treated Duncan.
The last person who is being monitored twice a day is a hospital worker who handled medical waste Oct. 17, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. That occurred the day after Pham was transferred from Dallas to a special National Institutes of Health facility in Bethesda, Md., for treatment, and two days after Vinson was similarly moved from Dallas to Emory University Hospital. This person, presuming they do not have any symptoms by the end of Friday, will be in the clear.
“We’re happy to reach this milestone, but our guard stays up,” David Lakey, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said in a statement.
Questions still remain about these cases in Texas, including why Duncan was sent home from the hospital when he first sought treatment (the hospital apologized for making “mistakes” but offered no explanation beyond that) and how the two nurses were infected. And there are still other people in Texas being monitored for Ebola at this moment. About 50 people returned to the state from the West African countries hit hardest by the epidemic and are being monitored; one person, a nurse who treated patients in Sierra Leone, has been asked to stay home during her 21-day window, health officials said.
Meanwhile, here is your periodic reminder that there is currently only one (1) person in the United States with Ebola.