More than 120 passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship are set to be released from quarantine in San Antonio, a day after Mayor Ron Nirenberg declared a public health emergency and tried to delay the process so more patient testing could be done.
Nirenberg declared the emergency after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mistakenly released a patient from the cruise ship over the weekend despite her having tested positive for COVID-19, KXAN reported.
The incident shook local residents and raised questions about how the CDC — the leading national public health institute of the U.S. — has handled the coronavirus outbreak.
The patient mistakenly released in San Antonio was one of the people quarantined there at Lackland Air Force base after visiting Wuhan, China. She visited the local North Star Mall, a hotel and an airport before she was returned to isolation once the positive test was discovered, city officials said. No known cases of the illness have been transmitted in the community, Nirenberg said.
It’s believed the patient exposed at least 21 people after she was released from quarantine including at least 18 people at a hospital and three at a hotel.
The emergency declaration was an attempt to ensure the CDC did not release 122 other patients originally scheduled for discharge, Nirenberg said.
On Tuesday, Nirenberg said the CDC has changed its plan. Only passengers who were symptom-free for the entire 14-day quarantine would be released and no one would be released if test results were pending, according to US News.
Passengers were to be transported on Tuesday by bus from Lackland Air Force Base directly to the airport.
“I’m comfortable that the plan as presented will minimize the risk of exposure,” the mayor said in a statement. “… passengers will not stay in local hotels and will go directly to the airport.”
The North Star mall was close for a deep cleaning on Tuesday.
KXAN interviewed several mall employees who said they found out about the incident from the media. Mall management knew about the exposure on Monday but did not notify them, employees told the Austin, Texas NBC affiliate.
“Which I thought was really crazy because I was like, ‘Woah, I was here that day!’ High traffic and you could only imagine what goes on,” said Briston Tunon Ortiz, who works near the mall food court. Health officials say the patient ate at the food court.
Nirenberg said the CDC’s coronavirus testing protocol needs to be re-evaluated.
“We simply cannot have a screw-up like this from our federal partners,” he said during a press conference on Monday.
“While the CDC is encouraging everyone to wash their hands and prevent the spread of the virus as we would during the season, I would encourage the federal administration to not wash its hands of the responsibility to protect the public,” he said.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott agreed, saying the woman should never have been released to put others at risk.
“What happened in San Antonio and what the CDC did is completely unacceptable. It appears to be a case of negligence,” Abbott said during a separate news conference Monday morning.
Texas officials want the threshold for releasing patients to change from two negative tests to three. They also want tests done 48 hours apart, instead of 24 hours.
Trump’s CDC chief, Robert Redfield, faces increasingly harsh scrutiny following early mistakes on coronavirus and lack of a consistent message, Politico reported.
It was a CDC decision that stranded hundreds of Americans on a cruise ship that became the single biggest source of U.S. coronavirus cases. As of late February, dozens of public health labs were still waiting for tests that would allow them to diagnose coronavirus — a CDC responsibility. One of Redfield’s deputies urged businesses and schools to start preparing for the inevitable spread of the disease, which annoyed the White House, where officials worry about panicking Americans and driving down financial markets.
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The CDC chief might be a convenient scapegoat. “The buck should stop with (HHS Secretary Alex) Azar, not Redfield,” a former Trump official told Politico. Azar bears ultimate responsibility for any missteps at CDC, an agency he oversees.
Redfield was criticized by public health experts and reproductive rights supporters for advocating abstinence before marriage to stop HIV rather than providing free condoms. Redfield was an “abysmal choice” to lead the nation’s public health agency, author Laurie Garrett wrote for CNN in 2018. Redfield says he has since broadened his views.
Inside the health department, officials have complained that Redfield and the CDC were slow to resolve essential problems, like whether dozens of public health labs around the U.S. will soon have diagnostics capable of testing for coronavirus. Until then, the labs must mail samples to CDC headquarters in Atlanta, delaying test results.