One day after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said he had “no second thoughts” about forcing a quarantine on a nurse, Kaci Hickox, who had tested negative for Ebola, the Republican loosened his grip and agreed to transfer her to Maine where she lives.
The governor’s office announced Monday morning in a statement that the nurse – after being symptom-free for the last 24 hours – would adhere to her request to be moved to the state. At that point, Maine can “make a determination under their own laws” on whether to continue the quarantine, the statement read.
Both Christie and his office have pushed hard to justify the nurse’s quarantine, arguing that she had been symptomatic after returning from treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. She disputed this from the start, writing in an Op-Ed in a Dallas newspaper Sunday that airport officials used an unreliable forehead thermometer while she was flushed after being questioned for hours and upon arriving at the hospital, it was clear she wasn’t symptomatic.
“[S]he was ill. She was obviously ill enough that the CDC and medical officials hospitalized her and gave her an Ebola test… They don’t do that just for fun,” Christie said from Florida to the media on Monday. “So there’s been no reversal or change in any way of our policy or our approach.”
Despite his office’s insistence to the contrary, her release was only announced after much criticism of her forced quarantine. On Sunday, Hickox hired a lawyer to challenge the legality of her detainment in a tent at University Hospital in Newark and the American Civil Liberties Union questioned Christie’s constitutional authority and asked him to explain the legality of what he’d done. The White House reportedly pushed states to drop the policy, worrying it was medically unnecessary and it could disincentivize medical volunteers badly needed in West Africa, though a Christie spokesman said Sunday night no one had reached out to them.
The Pentagon also weighed in on the debate Monday, with spokesperson Col. Steve Warren telling reporters that U.S. Army forces returning from West Africa will be subject to “enhanced monitoring” – a stricter new policy that the Department of Defense said was not a quarantine, though soldiers would be in isolation for the duration of the 21-day monitoring period.
The fight over quarantines is a battle that’s playing out across the country, with lawmakers – particularly those on 2014 ballots or eyeing a 2016 White House bid – responding to the public’s fear with strict measures. But government and health officials have consistently urged calm and encourage restrictions based on the science of Ebola, which shows that before a person shows symptoms, they aren’t contagious.
It comes just as the New England Journal of Medicine published an editorial on Ebola quarantines that concludes, “we now know that fever precedes the contagious stage, allowing workers who are unknowingly infected to identify themselves before they become a threat to their community.”
“We gotta stop making this more than it is,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday. “There are other diseases, very dangerous diseases that are easily contracted … This is a disease that can only be passed through intimate contact with bodily fluids. Which is why you have not seen it grow in any meaningful way here.”
For Christie specifically, the governor appears eager to return to the kind of national prominence he earned for his handling of major events like Hurricane Sandy, where his decisive executive action and leadership skyrocketed his name to the top of every pollster’s top 2016 Republicans, and get away from the Bridgegate scandal that sunk his poll numbers and convinced the country he wasn’t White House material.
In New York, one governor on the ballot next week, Democrat Andrew Cuomo, initially announced a mandatory 21-day quarantine period with twice-daily unannounced visits from health officials. Responding to mounting pressure, Cuomo on Sunday night said quarantines could be spent at home amongst family and that the state would arrange to help medical professionals financially if their organization or Doctors Without Borders won’t pay them for the time of their quarantine. Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat running for reelection, shrugged off questions about travel bans and quarantines in a debate this weekend, saying ”I have nothing against a travel ban from West Africa,” he said when pressed. “What I’m saying is it is totally insufficient.” In Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley – another lawmaker thought to be eyeing the White House – announced a forced quarantine for some high-risk travelers who were directly exposed to Ebola.
In Illinois, Florida and Connecticut, governors in tough reelection battles put restrictions in place, with Florida’s Rick Scott declaring a mandatory 21-day monitoring period and Illinois’ Pat Quinn and Connecticut’s Dannel Malloy announcing mandatory, three-week quarantines.
As the political fight continues, the New York patient, Dr. Craig Spencer, has begun to exhibit gastrointestinal symptoms, the more dangerous stage of the virus, but tolerated a plasma treatment from blood donated by Dr. Nancy Writebol, another Ebola survivor who has antibodies against the virus in her blood.
Spencer spurred New York state’s mandatory quarantine after it was made public that he’d gone bowling in Brooklyn and taken public transportation the day before he began presenting symptoms of Ebola. Because he was asymptomatic at the time, officials have assured people that there was no risk to the public. A 5-year-old boy who had been taken to Bellevue Hospital in New York Sunday night, tested negative for Ebola Monday evening.
“Out of an abundance of caution, further negative Ebola tests are required on subsequent days to ensure that the patient is cleared,” New York health officials said in a statement. “The patient will also be tested for common respiratory viruses. The patient will remain in isolation until all test results have returned.”
Travelers arriving from Ebola-afflicted areas are allowed to enter through five airports in the United States, where they will be screened by airport officials and then handled accordingly.