DALLAS (CN) - A Liberian man confirmed as the first domestic case of Ebola may face criminal charges if he knowingly put the public at risk of infection, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins warned.
During NBC-affiliate KXAS' "Lone Star Politics" talk show taped on Friday, Watkins was asked about Liberian authorities announcing their intention to criminally charge Thomas Eric Duncan for allegedly lying about not having contact with an infected person when he was questioned at airport screening.
"That's an issue that have been discussing for the past couple of days," Watkins said. "It may be more of a federal issue, but we are actively having discussions as to whether or not we need to look into this as relates to a criminal matter."
Although a dangerous and fatal disease, Ebola is difficult to transmit. It requires direct contact with blood, bodily fluids or contaminated needles. It is not spread through casual contact or through the air.
Dallas County and city officials were on alert Sunday when a homeless man, Michael Lively, 52, wandered off from medical monitoring for Ebola. Lively may have been exposed to Ebola-infected bodily fluids inside a Dallas Fire-Rescue ambulance last week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified Lively as one of 38 contacts who were possibly exposed to the deadly virus.
Identified as a "low risk individual," Lively was found later in the day and placed back into monitoring, according to Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.
District attorney spokeswoman Debbie Denmon said prosecutors are looking into whether Duncan "knowingly and intentionally" exposed the public to the virus, which would be a crime.
"To put this in perspective, we prosecuted defendants who know they are HIV-positive and intentionally have sex with others without protection," Denmon said Friday evening. "In those cases, defendants with HIV who exposed the virus to others faced aggravated assault charges. It's possible the same charge could apply here."
Watkins said it would be "irresponsible" if his office did not look into the matter, but that it must "tread lightly."
Duncan's condition has been downgraded from serious to critical, officials with Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas said Sunday.
"We could not place an Ebola virus patient into the county jail and risk infecting others," Denmon said. "On a humanitarian note, it would be cruel and inhumane to go after a person on their deathbed, but at the same time the DA's office would want to show that there are consequences to entering the country by falsifying documents and then knowingly putting the public at risk."
Duncan helped carry an Ebola-infected and pregnant neighbor into a taxi several days before he left Liberia. Her death was believed to be related to her pregnancy at the time, The Associated Press reported.
It is not known whether Duncan knew of the woman's cause of death when he left Liberia for Dallas.
Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas officials said that during questioning on his first visit to the hospital, Duncan said he not been around anyone who was ill.
The hospital has come under heavy criticism for releasing Duncan with only antibiotics on Sept. 26 and failing to flag his travel history for Ebola. He was hospitalized two days later when he developed symptoms consistent with the disease.
Hospital officials have backpedaled in explaining that they found a "flaw" in the way doctor and nurse portions of the electronic health record interacted in this case.
They have since clarified that Duncan's travel history was documented "and available to the full care team in the electronic health record (EHR), including within the physician's workflow."
"There was no flaw in the EHR in the way the physician and nursing portions interacted related to this event," hospital officials said Friday evening.
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