WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) – Quarantines imposed on travelers coming from Ebola-affected countries in West Africa are a “little bit draconian,” a senior U.S. health official charged on Sunday, saying they could discourage American health workers from going to the region to help fight the epidemic.
But the governors of New York and New Jersey, two of the states that have imposed the measures, defended the measures.
New York, New Jersey and Illinois imposed 21-day mandatory quarantines in the last two days for anyone arriving with a risk of having contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. They are the three West African countries that have borne the brunt of an epidemic that has killed nearly 5,000 people.
“I don’t want to be directly criticizing the decision that was made but we have to be careful that there are unintended consequences,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” But he called the measures, which go beyond federal regulations, “a little bit draconian.”
“The best way to stop this epidemic is to help the people in West Africa, we do that by sending people over there, not only from the U.S.A. but from other places,” said Fauci.
The states’ policies were abruptly imposed after a New York City doctor was diagnosed with the disease on Thursday after coming home from treating patients in Guinea. Of particular concern to some New Yorkers was the fact that Dr. Craig Spencer was out and about around town between the time he got home and developed symptoms.
A nurse who returned on Friday through New Jersey’s Newark airport after working in Sierra Leone with Ebola patients, strongly criticized the quarantine policy on Saturday, describing hours of questioning and then transfer to a hospital isolation tent. On Sunday, she told CNN she “completely” did not understand the rationale for the policy.
Fauci reiterated what medical officials have stressed as Americans worry about Ebola: that it is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person, and is not transmitted by people who are not showing symptoms.
But New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, asked to respond to Fauciâ™s comment that it is not good science to quarantine people who are not symptomatic, said, “I donâ™t believe that when youâ™re dealing with something as serious as this that we can count on a voluntary system.â
âœThis is governmentâ™s job. If anything else, the governmentâ™s job is to protect the safety and health of our citizens,â he told the “Fox News Sunday” program.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it was “highly unlikely” a doctor coming back from West Africa would not cooperate with a quarantine. “But if you had someone that didn’t want to cooperate you can enforce it legally, thereâ™s no doubt about that,” Cuomo told New York’s 103.9 FM radio station.
A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health said the state’s action was “to help quell fears,” while educating the public about how Ebola is not easily spread.
POLITICS OF EBOLA
In defending the new quarantine rules, Christie is emerging as a prominent critic of the Obama administration’s handling of the Ebola crisis.
The New Jersey governor is considered a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and his aggressive stance could give a boost to his party in the midterm elections on Nov. 4, when the party hopes to take control of the Senate.
Missteps in handling the first diagnosis of Ebola on U.S. soil – a Liberian visitor to Texas in September – have opened the door for Republican attacks on President Barack Obama and his administration.
Even so, only four people, including the Liberian who died in Dallas, have been diagnosed with Ebola in the United States.
A Republican lawmaker said lack of trust in the federal government led New York and New Jersey to take action, and said it was not a partisan issue.
“Governors of both parties are reacting to an absence of leadership and belief that the federal government knows what they are doing,” Congressman Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told “Meet the Press.” New Jersey’s Christie is a Republican, while New York’s Cuomo is a Democrat, as is Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.
‘CRIMINALS AND PRISONERS?’
The quarantine measures were imposed in part in response to the case of Spencer, the New York doctor.
Both he and Kaci Hickox, the nurse who was quarantined after coming home from Sierra Leone on Friday, worked with Doctors Without Borders.
The charity, a leading part of international efforts to fight the epidemic, has criticized the treatment of Hickox in Newark and questioned the quarantine policies on Sunday.
“Quarantine measures or coercive measures against aid workers could give a superfluous sense of security, while the most important (thing) is to tackle the epidemic at its source,” Sophie Delauney, the charity’s executive director in the United States, said on “Meet the Press.”
Hickox said after her experience that she feared for what lies ahead for other U.S. health workers trying to help combat the epidemic. “Will they be made to feel like criminals and prisoners?” she wrote in an article published on Saturday by The Dallas Morning News on its website. (bit.ly/1w4Vi4J)
Asked in a CNN interview on Sunday about the quarantine policy, Hickox said, “I completely don’t understand it…We have to be very careful about letting politicians make medical and public health decisions.”
“I feel physically completely strong and emotionally completely exhausted,” she added.
Newark’s University Hospital said the nurse remained in isolation and under observation on Sunday “in a climate-controlled, indoor, extended care area in a building adjacent to the hospital.” On Saturday, Doctors Without Borders said Hickox’s tent was not heated.
Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, arrived in Guinea’s capital Conakry on Sunday, and plans also to visit Liberia and Sierra Leone to get a first-hand view of the global response to Ebola.
The virus has killed almost half of more than 10,000 people diagnosed with the disease – predominantly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.