Parkites flew with man with tuberculosis
June 13, 2007
Globe-trotting Park City residents were among those possibly exposed to an "extremely drug-resistant" form of tuberculosis when they rode a trans-Atlantic flight from Atlanta to Paris last month.
"The day that we got the call from the doctor both of us were terrified," Parkite Wes Garrett said.
Sarah Garrett, his wife, added that "we had people coming over and we were freaking out."
The couple sat on the plane directly behind Andrew Speaker, the Atlanta lawyer infected with a dangerous form of tuberculosis, also known as XDR-TB.
"The incubation period is a minimum 10 weeks," Garrett explained. "Within 10 weeks you have absolutely no chance of showing signs of the disease or passing the disease onto other people."
Tuberculosis, however, was active in Speaker when the Garretts sat in the row behind him on a May 12 flight to Paris, Sarah added.
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The infected man was flying to his wedding in Greece. During the flights Speaker reportedly had no clinical symptoms.
"I remember him telling the whole story to this elderly couple next to him, because we went to Greece on our honeymoon," Sarah Garrett said. "The way that you get TB is if you’re in an intimate enclosed space with someone, breathing the same air."
But the couple didn’t know they had possibly come in contact with tuberculosis until a doctor from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called Wes on May 31.
"When he said ‘CDC,’ I knew right then that we were somehow connected," he said.
Tests conducted by the Summit County Health Department at the Sheldon Richins Building determined the Garretts are not currently infected with tuberculosis.
Sarah said health department officials indicated that other Parkites might have come in contact with Speaker as the man hopped flights. The Garretts were asked to return for more tests in July.
"There were more people in Summit County who were on a plane with him," she said.
The Garretts now wait for tests to determine whether they have TB.
"Everybody who was on the plane with us is just waiting," Sarah said. "Isn’t that nuts?"
Early tests on six people from Tucson who flew with Speaker showed no signs they have the disease, according to Arizona health officials.
Three people in Arkansas were also being tested for possible tuberculosis infection after they were on a flight with the man.
The government ordered Speaker into isolation at a Denver hospital at the end of May after he created the international health scare by flying to Europe.
"They told him to turn himself in, in Rome, but he didn’t do that," Wes Garrett lamented.
Meanwhile, all passengers seated near Speaker on May 12 aboard Air France Flight 385 and Czech Air Flight 104 from Prague to Montreal on May 24 were identified, EU health officials reported.
Seated near Speaker on the planes were several Europeans and passengers from Africa, Canada and the United States.
"I thought, man, what kind of unlucky people would be on that flight," Wes joked about when he first heard of the health scare. "My number was up, but it was an unlucky number."
This week Summit County Health Department spokeswoman Katie Mullaly said she wasn’t aware of any county residents who boarded airplanes with Speaker.
"We’re paying attention to it and we know what the federal and state responses are, but we’re just waiting until we hear if they have any issues that have come up in Summit County," she said, adding that "this is all new to a lot of us."
Should a case of TB emerge in Summit County she expects CDC or Utah Department of Health officials to notify her.
"We’re just waiting to hear from up above," Mullaly said.
But the CDC might not be able to handle a TB outbreak, Wes Garrett said, insisting that health officials couldn’t prevent Speaker from leaving the country with the disease.
"It feels like the CDC wasn’t able to do all that they could, or didn’t. Either they weren’t willing to do it or they didn’t have the authority," he said. "It just shows how easily these things can be passed on. It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort."
Those exposed could experience two tuberculosis-related respiratory conditions: latent tuberculosis infection and active tuberculosis disease, both of which are treatable and curable.
Speaker insisted to Congress that doctors told him he wasn’t contagious and didn’t order him to stay in the United States for treatment, even as health officials painted a picture of a man on the run.
"I didn’t go running off and hide from people. It’s a complete fallacy, it’s a lie," the 31-year-old, told the Associated Press from his Denver hospital room.
Health officials in Fulton County, Ga., knew that Speaker had tuberculosis that was resistant to antibiotics and that he had travel plans. They met with him on May 10, two days before he flew for his wedding.
"If we have it in 10 weeks it definitely came from him," Sarah Garrett said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.