Ebola quarantines spur backlash
New York – — The gulf between politicians and scientists over Ebola widened on Sunday as the nation’s top infectious-disease expert warned that the mandatory 21-day quarantining of medical workers returning from West Africa is unnecessary and could discourage volunteers from traveling to the danger zone.
“The best way to protect us is to stop the epidemic in Africa, and we need those health care workers, so we do not want to put them in a position where it makes it very, very uncomfortable for them to even volunteer to go,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Meanwhile, Kaci Hickox, the first nurse forcibly quarantined in New Jersey under the state’s new policy, said in a telephone interview with CNN that her isolation at a hospital was “inhumane,” adding: “We have to be very careful about letting politicians make health decisions.”
Saying the federal health guidelines are inadequate, the governors of New York and New Jersey announced a mandatory quarantine program Friday for medical workers and other arriving airline passengers who have had contact with Ebola victims in West Africa, and Illinois soon followed suit. Twenty-one days is the incubation period for Ebola.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Sunday defended quarantining as necessary to protect the public and predicted it will become a “national policy sooner rather than later.”
“I don’t believe when you’re dealing with something as serious as this that we can count on a voluntary system,” said Christie, who is expected to run for the Republican nomination for president in 2016. He added: “I absolutely have no second thoughts about it.”
Conversely, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sunday eased the standards set on Friday, saying travelers returning from West Africa who had exposure to Ebola will be allowed to stay in their homes under the state’s 21-day quarantine.
“I understand some people may believe a 21-day home quarantine is a burden,” Cuomo said at a news conference Sunday night. “We are trying to balance aid from West Africa and public protection of New Yorkers and address the fear and concern of many New Yorkers.”
The Obama administration considers the policy in New York and New Jersey “not grounded in science” and has conveyed its concerns to Christie and Cuomo, said a senior administration official. The official wasn’t authorized to comment by name and insisted on anonymity.
President Barack Obama met Sunday with his Ebola response team, including “Ebola czar” Ron Klain. According to a statement released by the White House, Obama said any measures concerning returning health care workers “should be crafted so as not to unnecessarily discourage those workers from serving.”
Fauci made the rounds on five major Sunday morning talk shows to argue that policy should be driven by science — and that science says people with the virus are not contagious until symptoms appear. And even then, infection requires direct contact with bodily fluids.
He said that close monitoring of medical workers for symptoms is sufficient, and warned that forcibly separating them from others, or quarantining them, for three weeks could cripple the fight against the outbreak in West Africa — an argument that humanitarian medical organizations have also made.
“If we don’t have our people volunteering to go over there, then you’re going to have other countries that are not going to do it and then the epidemic will continue to roar,” Fauci said.
Christie, traveling the country as head of the Republican Governors Association, said he was not worried that quarantining might discourage volunteers.
Earlier this month, four members of a family in Texas that Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan stayed with before he died were confined to their home under armed guard after failing to comply with a request not to leave their apartment. Also, 75 Dallas hospital workers were asked to sign legally binding documents in which they agreed to not go to public places or use mass transit.
The New York-area quarantine measures were announced after Grosse Pointe Woods native Dr. Craig Spencer returned to New York City from treating Ebola victims in Guinea for Doctors Without Borders and was admitted to Bellevue Hospital Center last Thursday to be treated for Ebola. In the week after his return, he rode the subway, went bowling and ate at a restaurant.
Hospital officials said Sunday that Spencer was in serious but stable condition.
Hickox, the quarantined nurse who just returned from Sierra Leone, said she had no symptoms at all and tested negative for Ebola in a preliminary evaluation.
“It’s just a slippery slope, not a sound public health decision,” she said of the quarantine policy. “I want to be treated with compassion and humanity.”