Quarantine or not? Key Ebola question pits Obama vs. governors

New York, New Jersey, and Illinois have ordered the quarantine of anyone returning to the US who has been in contact with Ebola patients in West Africa. Medical experts warn this could discourage health care workers from going there to help.

Mark Lennihan/AP
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks at a news conference Friday. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is at right. The governors announced a mandatory quarantine for people deemed "high risk" returning to the US through airports in New York and New Jersey.

The Obama administration and three prominent governors – two of them Democrats – are at odds over whether or not people returning to the US from Ebola-stricken countries in West Africa should be quarantined.

New York, New Jersey, and Illinois – led, respectively, by Governors Andrew Cuomo (D), Chris Christie (R), and Pat Quinn (D) – have ordered mandatory quarantine for those deemed "high risk" of carrying the disease. Generally speaking, that means health care workers or anybody else who has had direct contact with an Ebola patient in Sierra Leone, Guinea, or Liberia.

On Saturday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) ordered  twice daily monitoring for anyone returning from places the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designates as affected by Ebola. Gov. Scott said if the state health department determines any of those monitored are at a high risk of contracting the disease, the state will take further action to protect those individuals and the rest of Florida with a mandatory quarantine.

Appearing on five television news shows Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned that mandatory, 21-day quarantining of medical workers returning from West Africa is unnecessary and could discourage volunteers from going there to help fight the spread of the disease.

"If you put everyone in one basket, even people who are clearly no threat, then we have the problem of the disincentive of people that we need," Dr. Fauci said on ABC's This Week. "Let's not forget the best way to stop this epidemic and protect America is to stop it in Africa, and you can really help stopping it in Africa if we have our people, our heroes, the health care workers, go there and help us to protect America."

UN Ambassador Samantha Power weighed in too, telling NBC News that returning American health care workers should be "treated like conquering heroes and not stigmatized for the tremendous work that they have done."

Amb. Power, who is traveling in West Africa, said quarantine plans in New York, New Jersey, and Illinois are "haphazard and not well thought out."

"We cannot take measures here that are going to impact our ability to flood the zone," Power said. "We have to find the right balance between addressing the legitimate fears that people have and encouraging and incentivizing these heroes."

A senior administration official told the New York Times the decision by the governors was “uncoordinated, very hurried, an immediate reaction to the New York City case that doesn’t comport with science.”

New York's quarantine measures were announced after Dr. Craig Spencer returned to New York City from treating Ebola victims in Guinea for Doctors Without Borders. He was admitted to Bellevue Hospital Center last Thursday to be treated for Ebola symptoms.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends voluntary quarantines. But appearing on "Fox News Sunday," Gov. Christie defended his action in ordering a mandatory quarantine.

"I don't think when you're dealing with something as serious as this you can count on a voluntary system," he said. "This is the government's job."

"I think this is a policy that will become a national policy sooner or later," he added.

"It's too serious a situation to leave it to the honor system of compliance," Gov. Cuomo said recently.

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."

Ms. Hickox has twice tested negative for Ebola and has exhibited no evidence of the disease. She told CNN that she was put in an isolation tent inside University Hospital in Newark where she has no shower, no flushable toilet, and was given paper scrubs to wear.

"While we understand that the required quarantine is an inconvenience, it is our primary goal to make sure the patient is as comfortable as possible," hospital spokesperson Stacie Newton told CNN. "We have given our prompt attention to provide the patient with basic needs and to accommodate additional requests made by the patient."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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