On Friday, Kaci Hickox, a Doctors Without Borders nurse, arrived back in the United States after helping treat patients in West Africa. It was not a happy return: after arriving at an airport in New Jersey, officials put her in quarantine.
Hickox’s isolation is the result of a new policy endorsed last week by Govs. Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo (D) of New York, who announced new guidelines requiring 21-day quarantines for those arriving from West Africa – whether they’re showing symptoms or not.
The result is a scenario that seems hard to believe: New Jersey has effectively detained a nurse in a tent with no shower, not because she’s showing symptoms of the Ebola virus, but because officials fear she might at some point show symptoms of the Ebola virus.
Christie defended the mandatory quarantine, saying the nurse was “obviously ill.” This was apparently obvious only to the governor – who has no background in medicine or public health – and was clearly not obvious to Hickox herself.
Christie boasted on one of the Sunday shows yesterday, “I absolutely have no second thoughts about it,” adding that he expects his policy to soon become “a national policy.” A few hours later, however, second thoughts emerged.
Facing fierce resistance from the White House and medical experts to a strict new mandatory quarantine policy, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Sunday night that medical workers who had contact with Ebola patients in West Africa but did not show symptoms of the disease would be allowed to remain at home and would receive compensation for lost income. […]After Mr. Cuomo’s announcement, Mr. Christie issued a statement saying that, under protocols announced on Wednesday, New Jersey residents not displaying symptoms would also be allowed to quarantine in their homes.
The shifts came on the heels of White House pressure on Cuomo and Christie, urging them to adopt policies more in line with science. It’s unclear whether the revised approach will allow Hickox to leave her state-mandated tent.
There are a few angles to this to keep in mind, not the least of which the dubious legality of New Jersey imposing a mandatory quarantine on a woman who’s reportedly asymptomatic. Forcing medical professionals to remain in their homes for 21 days is marginally better, at least with regards to their personal convenience, but remains problematic. Indeed, by the same reasoning, states would have to impose similar penalties on doctors and nurses treating an Ebola patient in the United States.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top Ebola expert at the National Institutes of Health, warned on “Meet the Press” yesterday of “unintended consequences” – the more we discourage public-health workers from treating Ebola patients, the worse the threat becomes.
This isn’t complicated. The best way to deal with Ebola is to treat the problem at the source: West Africa. There are American medical professionals who are willing to make an enormous sacrifice by traveling abroad to address this crisis, but if the United States discourages them, they’ll help fewer patients, the virus will spread, and the threat will become more severe.
In other words, a policy intended to keep Americans safe will likely put Americans at greater risk.
As for the politics, about a week ago, Christie seemed eager to be one of the more sensible voices in his party, warning of unnecessary “hysteria” surrounding Ebola. To be sure, the governor hasn’t devolved into Rand Paul-esque nuttiness, but Christie unilaterally locking up a healthy nurse for three weeks raises credible questions about his judgment.