Hazmat trucks pulled up outside the apartment where Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan had been staying in Dallas, five days after he was admitted to the hospital and days after relatives, including children, were confined there by state officials.
Red tape and arguments over procedure appear to have held up what should have been a relatively straightforward cleanup. But nothing is straightforward when it comes to dealing with Ebola, the frightening virus that’s infected more than 7,000 people in West Africa and killed more than half of them.
Special permits and a properly trained crew were needed to haul away soiled sheets and towels from the apartment where Duncan was staying with relatives after he was mistakenly sent home from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.
Experts stress that the apartment isn’t especially dangerous to anyone. Ebola is spread by direct contact with people who are sick, or with fluids such as vomit or blood. Relatives have said any sheets or towels that Duncan used have been bagged.
But special permits are required to haul waste that’s considered a biohazard, said Thomas Skinner, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “There’s no excuse,” for the delay, he told MSNBC. Texas state health officials have said several times that they had trouble finding a company willing to come in and clean the apartment.
“We have been working to relocate the family members currently under the control orders but do not have any additional information at this time,” Dallas County spokeswoman Lauren Mish told NBC News. “Federal transportation permits are required for this type of waste removal.”
Trucks bearing the logo of “The Cleaning Guys” were pulled up outside the apartment Friday morning, as well as Dallas fire and hazmat teams.
"The family will remain in the apartment during this time and it is safe for them to do so," Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said in a statement. But they'll be moved soon. "I am concerned about this family," Jenkins said, describing the children as "scared" by the constant media presence, bright lights and all, outside the apartment.
"I want this family treated as I would like to see my own family treated," he added. "I don't like it that there are soiled items in there with them....I’d like to see them moved to a place that includes its own washer and dryer and that’s a more complete living arrangement than they have now."
Jenkins said final permits were still being issued.
"The contractor team will start the initial clean-up, place materials in secured containers, and working with Dallas County and the City of Dallas Hazmat, a vehicle will transport the materials to a secure location. We are coordinating with our state and federal partners to ensure compliance with regulations regarding transfer of hazardous materials. "
Any potentially infected material should be removed carefully but there is no risk to the community, said Jill Holdsworth, a Virginia infection control expert and member of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control’s emergency preparedness committee.
“People need to be educated so they are not out there thinking they could get Ebola,” Holdsworth told NBC News.
But Ebola virus is actually not difficult to kill — soap and water will wash it safely away, and bleach definitely kills it. Unless bodily fluids were splashed all over — an unlikely scenario — the apartment would not be a hot zone, she said.
“If there is a couch or something fabric, it’ll probably just get trashed,” she said. “If he wasn’t vomiting, then the risk in his apartment is probably small.”
CDC and other health experts are checking on the family members who have been living in the apartment, taking their temperatures and making sure they don’t feel unwell.
If someone starts to develop a fever or feels unwell, he or she will be isolated and watched carefully for evidence of Ebola. Doctors believe that quick treatment can help people survive the infection better.