ATLANTA – A globe-trotting Atlanta lawyer with a dangerous strain of tuberculosis was allowed back into the U.S. by a border inspector who disregarded a computer warning to stop him and don protective gear, officials said Thursday. The inspector has been removed from border duty.
The unidentified inspector explained that he was no doctor but that the infected man seemed perfectly healthy and that he thought the warning was merely "discretionary," officials briefed on the case told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter is still under investigation.
The patient was identified as Andrew Speaker, a 31-year-old personal injury lawyer who returned last week from his wedding and honeymoon trip through Italy, the Greek isles and other spots in Europe. His new father-in-law, Robert C. Cooksey, is a CDC microbiologist whose specialty is TB and other bacteria.
Cooksey would not comment on whether he reported his son-in-law to federal health authorities. Nor did the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explain how the case came to their attention. However, Cooksey said that neither he nor his CDC laboratory was the source of his son-in-law's TB.
Speaker is now under quarantine at a hospital in Denver. He is the first infected person to be quarantined by the U.S. government since 1963.
The disclosure that the patient is a lawyer — and specifically a personal injury lawyer — outraged many people on the Internet and elsewhere. Some travelers who flew on the same planes with Speaker angrily accused him of selfishly putting hundreds of people's lives in danger.
"It's still very scary," 21-year-old Laney Wiggins, one of more than two dozen University of South Carolina-Aiken students who are getting skin tests for TB. "That is an outrageous number of people that he was very reckless with their health. It's not fair. It's selfish."
Speaker said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he knew he had TB when he flew from Atlanta to Europe in mid-May for his wedding and honeymoon, but that he did not find out until he was already in Rome that it was an extensively drug-resistant strain considered especially dangerous.
On its Web site, ABC said "Good Morning America" planned to air an interview Friday morning in which Speaker says he has a tape recording of a meeting with health officials that he claims will confirm his view that it was all right to travel in his condition. He also asks for forgiveness from other passengers, ABC said.
Despite warnings from federal health officials not to board another long flight, he flew home for treatment, fearing he wouldn't survive if he didn't reach the U.S., he told the Atlanta paper. He said he tried to sneak home by way of Canada instead of flying directly into the U.S.
He was quarantined May 25, a day after he was allowed to pass through the border crossing at Champlain, N.Y., along the Canadian border.
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 instead 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 land 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.
On Thursday, a tan and healthy-looking Speaker was flown from Atlanta to Denver, accompanied by his wife and federal marshals, to Denver's National Jewish Medical and Research Center, where doctors planned to isolate him and treat him with oral and intravenous antibiotics.
Dr. Charles Daley, chief of the hospital's infectious-disease division, said he is optimistic Speaker can be cured because he is believed to be in the early stages of the disease.
Dr. Gwen Huitt of National Jewish described Speaker as "a young, healthy individual" who is "doing extremely well."
"By conventional methods that we traditionally use in the public health arena ... he would be considered low infectivity at this point in time," she said. "He is not coughing, he is healthy, he does not have a fever."
Doctors hope also to determine where he contracted the disease, which has been found around the world and exists in pockets in Russia and Asia.
Speaker's tuberculosis was discovered when he had a chest X-ray in January for a rib injury, Huitt said.
His care — which could also include surgery — could cost between $250,000 to $350,000, she said. The air ambulance flight and other costs of transporting him from Atlanta to Denver on Thursday morning totaled another $12,000, said a spokeswoman for Kaiser Permanente, Speaker's health insurer, which paid the bill.
He will be kept in a special unit with a ventilation system to prevent the escape of germs. "He may not leave that room much for several weeks," hospital spokesman William Allstetter said.
Speaker's father-in-law has worked at the CDC for 32 years and is in the Division of Tuberculosis Elimination, where he works with TB and other organisms. He has co-authored papers on diabetes, TB and other diseases.
"As part of my job, I am regularly tested for TB. I do not have TB, nor have I ever had TB," he said in a statement. "My son-in-law's TB did not originate from myself or the CDC's labs, which operate under the highest levels of biosecurity."
In a brief telephone interview with the AP, Cooksey said that he gave Speaker "fatherly advice" when he learned the young man had contracted the disease.
"I'm hoping and praying that he's getting the proper treatment, that my daughter is holding up mentally and physically," Cooksey said. "Had I known that my daughter was in any risk, I would not allow her to travel."
According to a biography posted on a Web site connected with Speaker's law firm, the young lawyer attended the U.S. Naval Academy, graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in finance, and then attended University of Georgia's law school. He is in private practice with his father, Ted Speaker, an unsuccessful candidate for a judgeship in 2004.
Speaker's father told WSB-TV: "The way he's been shown and spoken about on TV, it's like a terrorist traveling around the world escaping authorities. It's blown out of proportion immensely."
Andrew Speaker recently moved from an upscale condominium complex in anticipation of his wedding, former neighbors said. He also wrote in an application to become a board member of his condo association that he was going to Vietnam for five weeks as part of the Rotary Club to act as an ambassador.
His wife, Sarah, is a third-year law student at Atlanta's Emory University.
"He's a great guy. Gregarious," said Pam Hood, a former neighbor. "He's a wonderful guy. Just a very, very pleasant man."
Health officials in North America and Europe are now trying to track down about 80 passengers who sat near him on his two trans-Atlantic flights, and they want passenger lists from four shorter flights he took while in Europe.
However, other passengers are not considered at high risk of infection because tests indicated the amount of TB bacteria in Speaker was low, said Dr. Martin Cetron, director of the CDC's division of global migration and quarantine.
Health law experts said Speaker could be sued if others contract TB.
"There are a number of cases that say a person who negligently transmits an infectious disease could be held liable," said Lawrence Gostin, a public health law expert at Georgetown University. "So long as he knew it was infectious, and knew about the appropriate behavior but failed to comply, he could be held liable."
Speaker told the Journal-Constitution that he wasn't coughing and that doctors initially did not order him not to fly and only suggested he put off his long-planned wedding. "We headed off to Greece thinking everything's fine," he told the newspaper.