The Real Story in the Globe-Hopping TB Patient Story

This post may make it sound as though it’s anti-globalization day at The Glittering Eye. I’m not anti-globalization. I favor free trade, I think that on balance globalization is a good thing, but I do think that we need to be more prudent than we have been and need to understand that different conditions prevail in other countries than those we’re accustomed to here.

The story of the young Atlanta lawyer with drug-resistant tuberculosis who flew to Europe for his honeymoon, travelled extensively there, and returned to the U. S. by way of Canada is certainly hot news today. I’ve been listening to Diane Sawyer’s interview with Andrew Speaker, the young man in question, all morning.

I’ll refrain from commenting on Mr. Speaker’s conduct since I don’t think that’s the important story. Plenty of other people are doing so. Note particularly Professor Bainbridge’s observations on the legal liabilities that Mr. Speaker may face. A quick observation of my own on this: I think it’s reasonable for government to restrain people from assuming risks whose consequences are completely beyond their ability to redress. Obviously, there’s a slippery slope on this but this is a particularly egregious case.

I think there are two larger issues here. The first issue is that low-level government officials are making policy decisions. Here’s a quotation from the interview cited above:

“Everyone knew. … The CDC knew, doctors knew, Kaiser knew. They said, ‘We would prefer you not go on the trip,'” he said. “And that’s when my father said, ‘OK, are you saying because he’s a risk to anybody or are you simply saying it to cover yourself?’ And they said, ‘We have to tell you that to cover ourselves, but he’s not a risk.'”

What’s the law? What are the regulations? “Prefer you not to go” is absurd—either the CDC should have butted out completely or he should have been prevented from travelling.

It’s not an isolated instance in this case. Mr. Speaker was allowed back into the United States by a customs official who saw he was to be apprehended but did nothing because “he didn’t look sick”. He made a policy decision. That wasn’t his job. He hadn’t been trained that wasn’t his job.

The inspector ran Speaker’s passport through a computer, and a warning – including instructions to hold the traveler, don a protective mask in dealing with him and telephone health authorities – popped up, officials said. About a minute later, Speaker was cleared to continue on his journey, according to officials familiar with the records.

The Homeland Security Department is investigating.

The border officer “who questioned that person is, at present, performing administrative duties,” said Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke, adding that the officer is not checking people at the border crossing.

Colleen Kelley, president of the union that represents customs and border agents, declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but said “public health issues were not receiving adequate attention and training” within the agency.

The second larger question is that it’s vitally important that we learn how Mr. Speaker contracted the disease. It’s possible it was just some random contacted. In one of the teasers for today’s interview I heard Mr. Speaker say something his having volunteered in a hospital overseas. Thailand?

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find new antibiotics and ever more bacteria are becoming resistant to the antibiotics we have. We may be entering a post-antibiotic era. That’s not good news.

This process is being facilitated by the many countries in which antibiotics are available over-the-counter and are used carelessly and without professional supervision. This needs to be taken more seriously than it is.

3 comments… add one
  • It is one hell of a coincidence that this guy’s father-in-law happens to work with TB. I mean, not every coincidence is a conspiracy, but really, what are the odds here?

    And then we’re supposed to believe that this guy, knowing he had TB hopped on a plane to see his fiance? Why, because he felt they should share everything?

    There is an awful lot wrong with this narrative.

  • Yeah, it’s a really weird story with almost non-stop CYA.

    As to pop-in-law, I’ve heard of “taking your work home with you” but that would be just too much. I wonder how he knows?

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