TB patient denies knowing of peril

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- A Georgia man with a highly infectious strain of tuberculosis, whose travels last month caused an international health scare, told Congress yesterday that he had no idea he was contagious.

"I don't want this, and I wouldn't have wanted to give it to someone else," said Andrew Speaker, a 31-year-old Atlanta lawyer who is under quarantine at a Denver hospital.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "knew that I had this. ... I was repeatedly told I was not contagious, that I was not a threat to anyone," he said.

As Speaker testified via telephone before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, House members in another hearing room raised concerns about the case's potential implications for U.S. security against terrorists.

"We dodged a bullet," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. "My question to the administration is, 'When are we going to stop dodging bullets and start protecting Americans?'"

Noting that the 9/11 commission had found "a failure of imagination" among intelligence officials and that reviews after Hurricane Katrina found "a failure of initiative," Thompson said officials "should have connected more dots."

Officials testifying before both committees outlined an array of failures that several members of Congress labeled a wake-up call for the possibility of a serious bioterrorism incident.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, the CDC director, testified that health officials thought Speaker had disregarded their advice not to travel.

"In retrospect, we realize by giving this patient the benefit of doubt, we put other patients at risk," she said. "We don't want to ever be there again."

Once CDC officials told the Homeland Security Department of the problem, department lawyers conferred for two hours with other agency lawyers about how to put someone who was not a terrorism suspect on the "no-fly" list, said Dr. Jeffrey Runge, chief medical officer for Homeland Security.

At that point, officials began monitoring Speaker's flight reservations back to the United States from Greece, where he had gone to be married, to make sure that he did not change his plans.

He eluded them by making a reservation to fly to Canada, said Jayson Ahern, assistant commissioner for field operations at Customs and Border Protection. That loophole, he said, will be addressed as U.S. officials confer with the airlines and other countries about how to better monitor travelers.

Johanna Neuman and Joel Havemann write for the Los Angeles Times.

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