The proposal, Senate Bill 538, would allow the governor to declare a state of infectious disease emergency, create stockpiles of protective equipment, and grant health officials greater power to stop public transportation vehicles and detain individuals who may be infected.
“We’d have a clear line of authority,” state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said at a Capitol press conference. “There would be stockpiles of personal protective equipment. First responders would be able to know when they were going to have to be around individuals with potentially infectious disease, a deadly infectious disease.”
The legislation stems from recommendations by a task force established by then-Gov. Rick Perry in October after a man in Dallas became the first person in the United States diagnosed with Ebola. The bill is designed to fix problems — highlighted by the Ebola scare — with the state’s ability to respond to an outbreak.
“This bill, although based on the Ebola emergency, is not an Ebola bill,” said Dr. Brett Giroir, director of the Texas Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response. “This is preparation for any infectious disease emergency in the future.”
Thomas Eric Duncan was sent home from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas after his first visit in September despite the fact that he had traveled in Liberia, an Ebola hot zone, and showed symptoms of the virus. Duncan returned to the hospital days later and was placed in intensive care, where he died on Oct. 8.
Two nurses who treated Duncan contracted the virus — they have since been declared Ebola-free — and the hospital was criticized for misdiagnosing Duncan and releasing him after his first visit.
“A number of opportunities for improvement quickly became apparent,” Schwertner, the bill's lead author, said of the state’s handling of the outbreak.
Based on the task force’s recommendations, two Ebola treatment facilities were established in Galveston and North Texas in October. A more detailed report released in December by the task force recommended establishing a treatment facility for children, training health workers to identify new diseases and expanding state executive power in disease-related emergencies.
“This emergency highlighted needs for profound changes in our training, in our preparedness, our protocols,” said Giroir, who is also CEO of the Texas A&M Health Science Center.
The bill would implement several of those changes, including new authority to quarantine infected people.
Under current law, the head of the Department of State Health Services can order a potentially exposed or infectious person to remain in his or her home, Giroir said. But the state cannot enforce that order until after the person has already broken the order and left the home, a redundancy that the new bill would eliminate.
It's important that officials do not wait to order a potentially infectious person to stay home until "after they’ve been to school, or to the state fair, or on public transportation, and exposed many individuals,” Giroir said.
The proposal would maintain the task force, with its current membership, as an advisory body to the governor.
“Texas is not going to rest just because the crisis of the moment has abated,” Schwertner said.