Members of a cleaning crew with ”Bio Recovery Corporation” wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) push a barrel to be loaded in a truck of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) after cleaning the apartment where Dr. Craig Spencer lives in New York October 24, 2014.
Credit: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz
(Reuters) – Quarantines imposed on travelers coming from Ebola-affected countries in West Africa could discourage American health workers from going there to help fight the epidemic, a senior U.S. medical official said on Sunday, warning such measures were “a little bit draconian.”
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.
But critics worry the policies, going beyond federal regulations and intended to ease public concern over the spread of the disease, will just make matters worse.
“I don’t want to be directly criticizing the decision that was made but we have to be careful that there are unintended consequences,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“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,” Fauci told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He called such quarantines “a little bit draconian.”
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.
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. She called her treatment a “frenzy of disorganization.”
Fauci reiterated what the medical officials have been stressing as Americans worry about Ebola: that it is spread only by contact with bodily fluids of people with symptoms.
“The science tells us that people who are not sick, if you do not come into contact with body fluid, if someone comes back from wherever, Liberia, and they’re well, they are no danger to anyone,” Fauci said.
But New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, asked to respond to Fauci’s comment that it is not good science to quarantine people who are not symptomatic, said, “I don’t believe that when you’re dealing with something as serious as this that we can count on a voluntary system.”
“This is government’s job. If anything else, the government’s job is to protect the safety and health of our citizens,” he told the “Fox News Sunday” program.
Asked whether the new rules would discourage health workers from going to West Africa, Christie added, “Folks that are willing to take that step and willing to volunteer also understand that it’s in their interest and in the public health’s interest to have a 21-day period thereafter if they’ve been directly exposed to people with the virus.”
POLITICS OF EBOLA
In defending the new quarantine rules, Christie is emerging as a prominent critic of the Obama adminstration’s handling of the Ebola crisis.
The 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.
Only one of the them, the doctor now in New York City’s Bellevue Hospital, contracted the disease while treating patients in West Africa. The other two are nurses from the Dallas hospital where Thomas Duncan died, but both of them have recovered.
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 Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a Democrat, as is Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.
‘CRIMINALS AND PRISONERS?’
The quarantine measures were imposed in part in response to the new case in New York – Dr. Craig Spencer, who was diagnosed on Thursday after working with Ebola patients in Guinea. Many New Yorkers were worried when it emerged he had been out and about in the city between coming home and developing symptoms.
Both he and Kaci Hickox, the nurse who was quarantined after coming home from Sierra Leone on Friday, worked with Doctors Without Borders, the medical charity that has been a leading part of international efforts to fight the epidemic in West Africa.
The charity 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)
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.”
Ebola has killed almost half of more than 10,000 people diagnosed with the disease – predominantly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – although the true toll is far higher, according to the World Health Organization.
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 see the global response to the Ebola spread first hand.
(Additional reporting by Howard Schneider in Washington, Barbara Goldberg, Natasja Sheriff and Yasmeen Abutaleb in New York, Michelle Nichols in Conakry; Writing by Lewis Krauskopf; Editing by Frances Kerry)