ATLANTA -- A widely traveled Atlanta lawyer with a dangerous strain of tuberculosis was allowed back into the United States by a border inspector who disregarded a computer warning to stop him and don protective gear, officials said yesterday.
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 "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 father-in-law, Robert C. Cooksey, is a CDC microbiologist whose specialty is tuberculosis 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 tuberculosis.
Speaker is now under quarantine at a hospital in Denver. He is the first infected person to be quarantined by the US 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," said Laney Wiggins, 21, one of more than two dozen University of South Carolina-Aiken students who are getting skin tests for tuberculosis. "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 a newspaper interview that he knew he had tuberculosis 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 a drug-resistant strain considered especially dangerous.
Yesterday, Italian health authorities said that their American counterparts did not notify them that an American tourist with an extremely dangerous form of tuberculosis was staying in a Rome hotel until he was leaving the country, Italian officials said .
That time lapse allowed him to leave Rome and fly to Prague and Montreal, potentially exposing dozens of people to an often-lethal germ.
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 United States, he said.
Speaker said he tried to sneak home by way of Canada instead of flying directly into the United States.
He was quarantined May 25, a day after he was allowed to pass through the border crossing at Champlain, N.Y.
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 agent who questioned that person is at present performing administrative duties," said Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke, adding that those duties do not include 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.
Yesterday, 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 that Speaker can be cured because he is believed to be in the early stages of the disease.