WASHINGTON – The globe-trotting tuberculosis patient now in quarantine insisted to Congress on Wednesday 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 or hide from people. It's a complete fallacy, it's a lie," Andrew Speaker, a 31-year-old Atlanta lawyer, said by telephone from the Denver hospital room where he remains in government-ordered isolation.
But in testimony to a Senate subcommittee, federal and local health officials said Speaker took an international flight two days earlier than planned after he had been told he had a drug-resistant form of TB and should not travel.
Fulton County health officials told Speaker, "No you should not travel," said Dr. Steven R. Katkowsky, the health department's director. "Was he ordered not to travel? The answer to that was no. The local health department does not have the authority to prohibit or order somebody not to travel."
Speaker's European wedding and honeymoon travel caused an international health scare. But Speaker told senators that in face-to-face meetings to discuss his treatment options days before he left, no doctors even wore masks.
"I was repeatedly told I was not contagious, that I was not a threat to anyone," Speaker said.
His medical chart says he was told that "he was not highly contagious," Katkowsky countered.
The dramatic testimony came as U.S. border officials separately told another congressional hearing that a lone officer undid their efforts to stop Speaker from re-entering the country — an explanation that was met with skepticism from lawmakers who said the case exposed plenty of holes in the nation's security.
"We dodged a bullet," House Homeland Security Committee chairman Bennie Thompson said as he opened another hearing into the case.
Thompson, D-Miss., said the explanations by homeland security and public health officials don't explain why they always seemed to be steps behind Speaker.
"We should have connected more dots," said Thompson. "Better — or at least more complete — policies and procedures may have made a difference in preventing Andrew Speaker from coming across the border."
Several Department of Homeland Security officials insisted to the committee that the problem lay in a single person — the border officer who waved Speaker into the country after receiving a computer alert to detain him and contact health authorities.
Even as they publicly defended their procedures, border officials have changed internal rules following the embarrassing incident.
The new rules limiting an officer's discretion may not be good enough for Congress.
A homeland security official said the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol henceforth would require officers to get approval from a supervisor before they override warnings like the one issued to stop Speaker. The official spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the congressional testimony.
Letting Speaker back into the country wasn't the only slip: He shouldn't have been allowed out, either, said the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But after talking with local health officials on May 10, Speaker changed his flight reservations to leave the country two days earlier than originally planned, said CDC chief Dr. Julie Gerberding — a step ahead of doctors who, under Georgia law, couldn't detain him until it was demonstrated that he was a danger.
"The whole issue of quarantine has been devoted to keeping people out. It is the first time have had to address keeping people in our country," she said.
That was among a series of gaps Gerberding identified in the Senate subcommittee hearing in the nation's public health security. Another: Once the CDC tracked Speaker down in Italy to tell him he had the worst TB form — a rare type resistant to most drugs — officials didn't immediately ask Italian authorities to detain him, but asked him to voluntarily turn himself in.
"We gave the patient the benefit of the doubt, and in retrospect we made a mistake," Gerberding said.
Instead, Speaker flew to Canada on May 24 — potentially exposing other passengers sitting near him on the plane — and then drove across the border into the U.S., despite a lookout alert issued to all border posts.
With a single wave of the hand, a lone U.S. border officer in Champlain, N.Y., negated days of efforts by health and security officials to track down the globe-trotting groom.
Doctors say Speaker has a relatively low chance of spreading the disease, possibly allowing him to leave his isolation room for a short time as soon as next week.
A third test of Speaker's sputum — a mixture of saliva and phlegm — turned up negative for the presence of TB bacteria, confirming the results of earlier tests at National Jewish Medical and Research Center.