The next time Texas fights an outbreak of infectious disease, it won’t be using the rule book it followed when Ebola came to Dallas. At least that’s if the House of Representatives goes along with a state Senate-passed bill and Gov. Greg Abbott signs the measure, which is based in part on the Ebola experiences of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Texas last year found that “control orders” restricting the travel and movement of people considered at risk of spreading an infectious disease were unenforceable and without any legal consequences for noncompliance. These control orders are issued by the health commissioner and have long provided the foundation for controlling infectious diseases. But when a Liberian man infected with Ebola stopped off a plane in Dallas last year, he infected two of his nurses and was exposed to others before he died. Like several other states, Texas then found that issuing control orders was no longer enough to keep people in their place. Senate Bill (SB) 538 remedies some of these problems, but the solutions it provides are both complex and not without significant opposition, including from local county commissioners and judges from across Texas. SB 538 sets up a new framework whereby the governor must first declare a state of emergency before turning over the day-to-day management of the health crisis to the state health commissioner. In the process, law enforcement would be empowered to detain someone for 24 hours to determine if they are infected with, have been exposed to, or are the carrier of, a communicable disease. Among the other provisions of the bill are:
- The Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response will continue as an advisory group for the governor.
- Subject to appropriations, personal protective equipment will be stockpiled on a regional basis.
- Portable treatment options for medical waste will be evaluated by state transportation and environmental quality officials.
- State health officials are given the power to test the blood of pets.
- State health officials are granted power to cremate remains without permission.
Dr. Charles Schwertner, the Georgetown Republican who sponsored SB 538, said that Texas would be “foolish to think” the Lone Star State will not experience another episode like the Ebola one in the future.