TB Patient: No One Said I Couldn't Travel

tuberculosis patient Andrew Speaker in his isolation room at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver shortly before testifying by telephone to a Congressional committee Wednesday, June 6, 2007.
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," Dr. Steven R. Katkowsky, the health department's director, said. "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."

Katkowsky also said Speaker was told he was not "highly contagious."

Speaker noted that all his meetings with doctors took place while he was still working and no one wore masks, reports CBS News Capitol Hill correspondent Bob Fuss.

The lawyer said when he was tracked down in Rome, he was told he could either raise $140,000 for a private air ambulance to come home or stay indefinitely in a Rome hospital. He said he chose at that point to return to the U.S. on his own.

State Department policy requires sick U.S. citizens abroad to pay their own way home. U.S. health officials felt that Speaker was such a danger to others, however, that they wanted to help transport him but were unable to find an airplane with the separate air ventilation required to prevent the spread of the disease before Speaker fled.

"We have a gap there," Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a separate Senate hearing.

The CDC now is trying to revamp its own aircraft to transport safely anyone else who has a disease transmitted by air.

Two different hearings Wednesday were focusing on the many things that seemed to go wrong, from communications failures between agencies to the fact that after Speaker was put on a list to be stopped at the border, he was able to come through anyway.

The House Homeland Security Committee was questioning federal authorities Wednesday on why they had such a hard time catching up to a man armed only with a passport, a smile and a now-rare, deadly disease.

W. Ralph Basham, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, testified to the House panel that his agency made a mistake by admitting Speaker into the country. He said he can't explain how it happened but takes full responsibility for it.

Speaker prompted an international health scare when he flew to Europe last month for his wedding and honeymoon. Once there, he disregarded instructions by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to turn himself in to local health officials in Italy.

Instead, Speaker flew to Canada on May 24, 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.

"This is an across-the-board meltdown" in border safeguards, said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., a senior member of the House panel. "It's a very serious problem because biological threat is real in our future any time, and it could be something like this or smallpox," Harman said in an interview before the hearing began.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.