Spooked after learning that a teenager visiting Miami Beach from Nigeria was tested over the weekend for the Ebola virus, county commissioners on Tuesday asked Mayor Carlos Gimenez to identify locations to quarantine potential patients in the future.
Never mind that the results came back negative and that, according to public-health administrators, the patient did not even present symptoms to require the test. Or that Miami International Airport already has a quarantine station, operated by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Local hospitals also have quarantine rooms.
The board still adopted emergency legislation requesting sites at MIA, PortMiami and elsewhere around the county “where Ebola symptomatic individuals could be isolated and quarantined pending medical intervention.” Commissioners also want a report from the mayor within 30 days on other measures the government could take to combat the possible spread of the deadly disease.
Separately, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, asked Secretary of State John Kerry to consider a temporary suspension of travel visas issued to countries hardest-hit by Ebola.
Politicians took no such actions a month ago when a patient at the county-owned Jackson Memorial Hospital also tested negative for the virus. Since then, a man from Liberia tested positive for Ebola in Dallas, prompting the quarantine of several other people who came in direct contact with him.
The second possible Miami patient drew far more political attention, raising questions about what the proper role of elected officials is in matters of public health.
“No politician has ever requested” to intervene with decisions at the Miami-Dade Department of Health, administrator Lillian Rivera said Tuesday.
The health department, a state agency with branches in every county, decided on its own on Sunday to ask the CDC to rule out Ebola in the latest case, Rivera said Tuesday. Results are expected Wednesday. A state test already came back negative.
But Mayor Gimenez told a different version of events. In a statement Sunday, he said he “requested” the additional CDC test.
He told the Miami Herald on Tuesday that when he and Rivera spoke Sunday morning, she said it was unlikely the patient, who had a fever and a headache, had Ebola but was inclined to ask the CDC to confirm the diagnosis. Gimenez said he agreed the feds should conduct the test and wanted to make sure they would. There is a limited number of Ebola test kits.
“It’s better that the world knows that there’s not an Ebola patient in Miami,” he said. “Being that we are a tourist destination and any sort of outbreak could have economic consequences.”
The mayor told commissioners on Tuesday that he had gone public with information about the test — unlike with the first patient a month ago — because a local television station had gotten word about a possible Ebola case at Mount Sinai, and he didn’t want people to speculate about the disease. The teenager, who Gimenez said was a cruise-ship passenger, was later transferred to Holtz Children’s Hospital at Jackson.
Earlier reports had indicated the patient was a boy, but the mayor said she is a girl. He also disclosed she is from Nigeria.
Gimenez told the Herald he had considered holding a news conference on Sunday but didn’t because the Florida surgeon general had advised against it, saying the odds of a positive result were slim and a figure like a mayor should only step in when more serious circumstances arise. His office issued a written statement instead. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine spoke to reporters.
Tuesday’s commission legislation, sponsored by Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa and Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, prompted an unusual discussion in the chambers — without any physicians present — about how Ebola can spread and which people might be susceptible to it. The virus is transmitted by direct contact with a symptomatic sick person’s bodily fluids, such as sweat, blood and vomit.
Gimenez said health officials didn’t think the Nigerian girl would have been exposed to the virus because she hails from a part of the West African country that hasn’t been much affected by Ebola — and because her “lifestyle” wasn’t conducive to getting infected.
“You have to basically eat bush meat, bats,” he said.
Sosa said she worried Ebola might become airborne and spread via central air-conditioning systems. Scientists have stressed that is not the case now with the virus.
The politicians acknowledged that the scare has been a learning experience. Gimenez said he met Monday with health officials, county emergency managers and county attorneys to delineate the mayor’s potential emergency powers and to review the government’s emergency plans.
The last time Miami witnessed a citywide quarantine was in the late 19th century, according to research conducted by Gimenez’s staff, over an outbreak of yellow fever.