Federal law needed to stem fear-driven Ebola quarantines

Healthcare, News, Politics

A nurse arrives back in the U.S. after treating Ebola patients in West Africa. Is she treated with a hero’s welcome? She is not. Instead, upon alighting at Newark airport she is swiftly shuttled to a secure hospital, where she is locked away in what’s called, by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a form of protective quarantine.

Kaci Hickox was asymptomatic at the time of quarantine. And unless this post crosses a story that will no doubt be pimped breathlessly by CNN, she’s asymptomatic today — because she doesn’t have Ebola. She was just close to people who had Ebola — helping them, treating them, easing their suffering.

So how does this happen? As it turns out, the law is something of an ass when it comes to matters of health and safety. Our constitutional freedom of liberty can mean very little in the face of public fear over the outbreak and spread of loathsome disease. Government officials have broad discretion to lock people away in the name of “quarantine” — and the lessons of Dallas and New York (home of the infamous “Ebola Bowling Tour“) obviously hit home with Mr. Christie. He decided that it’s better to clamp down on liberty than to be the poster child for government ineptitude on Ebola.

This might be understandable, if it was an action taken on the basis of facts rather than fear. But New Jersey’s policy — and those of a number of other states — goes far beyond the guidelines issued by the experts at the Centers for Disease Control. And this isn’t just a matter of state governments clamping down on civil liberties out of a misplaced fear of contagion.

As numerous scientists and officials have pointed out, broad, prophylactic quarantines applied to people who have been in a contagion “hot zone” but show no symptoms of disease are actually counter-productive. So, in addition to violating the civil liberties of their citizens, quarantine policies like those adopted in New Jersey are also working against the goal of stopping Ebola in West Africa and preventing its spread to the United States.

The good news is that Ms. Hickox got herself a good lawyer, took to the media and brought enough pressure to allow her the (relative) freedom of serving her 21-day quarantine from her home in Maine.

But as she remains asymptomatic (she has twice tested negative for Ebola and has no fever), she has stated that she doesn’t intend to honor this state-mandated home detention. It remains to be seen whether authorities in Maine will use force to quarantine her.

Ms. Hickox is fortunate to be so articulate, fearless and ably represented. But her case illustrates the persistent tendency of some state governments to act in a reactionary manner. This would be an excellent place for the federal government to step in with some preemptive regulations for declaring quarantines. Rules that apply consistently across the nation, and rules that are driven by science and evidence – not fear.

Related Articles: