Quarantine of aid workers reprehensible

By WSN Editorial Board, Editorial Board

After working with Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, a nurse was quarantined in a New Jersey hospital on Oct. 24. The nurse, Kaci Hickox, said she was held in isolation for nearly seven hours at Newark Liberty International Airport. She tested negative for Ebola the next day at the hospital where she is still being held. Hickox’s mandatory quarantine was in accordance with a recent policy announced by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The policy requires all individuals entering the country through Newark Liberty and JFK to be quarantined for 21 days if they had contact with an Ebola patient in Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone. The Obama administration has pushed Cuomo and Christie to reconsider the quarantine. Cuomo adjusted the policy on Oct. 26 to permit asymptomatic health care workers to serve the quarantine in their homes.

The details surrounding Hickox’s treatment reveal incompetence on those who instigated the quarantine. During the seven-hour airport detainment, Hickox was held without much explanation or nourishment. After her release, Hickox wrote, “My cheeks were flushed, I was upset at being held with no explanation” — and for good reason. She was fed one granola bar while detained. Hickox further explained that the officer who took her temperature found a temperature of 101 with a forehead scanner. An oral test found her temperature to be a normal 98, and a physician acknowledged she did not have a fever. Disturbingly, before facts concerning her health status were even released, Christie said Hickox was “obviously ill” and “symptomatic.”

In response to the controversy, Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “The problem here is, this hero, coming back from the front having done the right things was treated with disrespect.” As Hickox noted, her treatment raises questions of basic human rights. The methods of Hickox’s quarantine were unacceptable and, furthermore, isolating healthy individuals is a problematic choice. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently only recommends self-monitoring after contact with Ebola-infected individuals because people are not contagious until they show symptoms.

By instituting the original policy, Cuomo and Christie allowed fear to influence their decision making rather than deferring to medical experts who better understand how to contain the virus. Even Cuomo’s Oct. 26 revision, which makes a relatively minor modification to the initial protocol, could still result in unjust treatment of quarantined individuals. In establishing this policy, Cuomo and Christie made an ill-informed choice that contradicts scientific advice. This policy — both the original and updated forms — harms health care workers who are directly combatting the spread of this disease and inciting unnecessary panic. It not only needlessly violates the autonomy of health care professionals, but also makes them appear dangerous to the public when they are not. Quarantine carries a stigma, and placing this stigma on an entire field of workers fighting to stop this outbreak in Africa will only discourage continued relief.

A version of this article appeared in the Oct. 27 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at edit [email protected]