- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2007

A top federal health official told Congress yesterday that federal weaknesses were exposed by the recent incident of a globe-trotting American infected with tuberculosis and called for quarantine law changes and better federal plans for notification and transporting the sick.

“Everyone was giving the patient the benefit of the doubt,” Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told senators who asked why government officials failed to get a step ahead of Andrew Speaker, 31.

“We failed to take the aggressive actions we could have,” she said.

Mr. Speaker left Atlanta for Europe last month against doctors’ advice and later ignored CDC officials’ instructions to stay in Italy. Instead, he took a flight to Canada May 24 and drove across the U.S. border.

“This thing just fell apart,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that held one of two congressional hearings on the incident yesterday.

Mr. Speaker defended himself via telephone from a Denver hospital, telling senators, “I was repeatedly told I was not contagious.”

He insisted that local and federal health officials knew of his travel plans to Europe last month.

“I didn’t go running off or hide from people,” he said.

Health authorities said Mr. Speaker was told that he could spread the illness and shouldn’t travel and that he left the country two days earlier than planned. They said Georgia law didn’t allow them to stop Mr. Speaker from leaving.

Dr. Gerberding called for more state authority in such cases.

Across the Capitol, members of the House Homeland Security Committee tried to determine why Mr. Speaker was allowed to drive back into the country from Canada after the CDC had alerted U.S. Customs and Border Protection and flagged his passport. Several Department of Homeland Security officials told the committee that a lone Border Patrol agent was responsible for admitting Mr. Speaker into the United States despite a computer alert to detain him.

Lawmakers were unimpressed.

“Better — or at least more complete — policies and procedures may have made a difference in preventing Andrew Speaker from coming across the border,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat.

Lawmakers have introduced bills to boost funding for TB research and treatment. Mr. Harkin said Congress also will consider legal changes to ensure the CDC has enough power to prevent similar incidents.

Border officials have altered some internal rules in response to the incident.

“There is no excuse” for the mistake, said Deborah Spero, deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Dr. Steven Katkowsky, a Fulton County, Ga., health official, said he and his staff “found ourselves in a Catch-22,” because Georgia law wouldn’t allow them to stop Mr. Speaker’s travels until he disobeyed their medical orders.

Dr. Gerberding addressed federal missteps and suggested that the CDC expedite notification of domestic and international partners, improve the government’s ability to transport infectious patients long distances and extend federal quarantine authority. The current focus is on stopping infectious people from entering the United States or moving from state to state.

Mr. Harkin criticized the CDC for knowing on May 18 that Mr. Speaker was overseas with a drug-resistant form of TB, yet spending days confirming the information and trying to locate him before issuing an official alert to U.S. Customs and Border Protection on May 22. That was when tests determined that he had an even more drug-resistant form of the illness.

“This time frame should have been collapsed into just a few hours,” he said.

{bullet} This story is based in part on wire service reports.