Utah couple tested for rare, drug-resistant strain of TB after sitting behind infected groom on flight
Posted: 12:55 PM- Three Utahns were on the same flight as a man with a dangerous form of tuberculosis and will have to wait until next month to find out if they now have it, too.
But Utah health officials say the chances are slim that the three became infected after sharing a flight in May from Atlanta to Paris with Andrew Speaker, an Atlanta lawyer with a highly drug-resistant form of the disease.
"Mr. Speaker is what we call 'smear-negative' . . . which means he was not very infectious," Teresa Garrett, who oversees the TB program for the Utah Department of Health, said Thursday. "His ability to spread the disease to others is probably very limited, which is good news."
Wes and Sarah Garrett, from Park City and no relation to Teresa Garrett, sat behind Speaker on the May 12 flight - in what health officials refer to as the "hot zone" because they were so close to the infected man. They overheard Speaker talk about getting married in Greece, which struck them because that's where the Garretts honeymooned.
But they thought nothing of the flight - the Garretts eventually landed in Bologna, Italy, - even after hearing news stories about a man who sparked an international scare for traveling the globe with what is referred to as extensively drug-resistant, or XDR, TB.
Then they got a call from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"As soon as they said 'CDC,' I thought, 'Oh no, I must have been on that flight,' " Wes Garrett said Thursday. "Definitely I was fearful at the time. I didn't know much about tuberculosis. I didn't really know what the implications were. It took a little while to set in."
A third Utahn was also on the flight, though he or she wasn't sitting near Speaker, according to UDOH.
The CDC recommended all 433 passengers and 18 crew members on the Paris flight be tested, along with the 191 passengers and nine crew members on the return flight Speaker took from Prague to Montreal.
All three Utahns have been tested to rule out they had previously been exposed to TB, according to UDOH. Since it takes up to 10 weeks for TB to show up on a test, the three will be tested again in mid-July.
"It definitely is a little bit scary we could have this deadly disease and could end up in quarantine," Wes Garrett said.
But health officials have told them to carry on with their lives. Since they aren't considered infected or contagious, they are allowed to travel and don't have to wear face masks.
"There has been some panic over TB infection," said Stephanie Hurt, infectious disease coordinator for Summit County Public Health Department, which tested the Garretts. "It is very hard to get."
The third Utahn was tested in Salt Lake County.
TB is usually spread by air, after an infected person coughs. Wes Garrett noted Speaker wasn't coughing or ill on the flight, and the hospital treating Speaker in Denver reported he still doesn't have a cough. Speaker remains in isolation at National Jewish hospital.
Still, health officials are trying to decide what to do if the Utah tests come back positive since the strain is not easily treatable, said Teresa Garrett.
"We're trying to learn as much as we can so we can provide appropriate advice when the time comes," she said, noting that CDC and National Jewish are still trying to find the right antibiotics to combat the strain infecting Speaker.