Controversy Brews Over Ebola Quarantines as Nurse Held in Newark Agrees to Home Confinement

ebola nurse nj
Norman Siegel

The nurse who was held under mandatory quarantine at a New Jersey hospital after treating Ebola patients in West Africa agreed to be isolated at home in Maine as controversy over detention of health care workers who treated sick people abroad simmers.

Kaci Hickox, the first person quarantined in the Garden State under a mandate issued by Gov. Chris Christie last week, was discharged after being "symptom-free" and arrived Tuesday morning in Maine, where her partner is a nursing student.

Maine health officials announced that she'd be quarantined at home for 21 days after the last possible exposure to the disease under the state's health protocols.

Attorney Steve Hyman said he's working with state health officials in Maine. He said Hickox deserves to be "honored, not detained" for her work in Africa.

Hickox volunteered in Africa with Doctors Without Borders. She spent the weekend in a quarantine tent in New Jersey despite having no symptoms other than a slightly elevated temperature she blamed on being "flushed and upset" by her treatment at Newark Liberty International Airport. She was extremely critical of her treatment and said she would file a civil rights lawsuit if she wasn't released.

In an interview on NBC's "Today" show Tuesday, Christie defended quarantining Hickox, saying that the move was to protect people in New Jersey. He said she was released after she stopped exhibiting symptoms, not because she threatened of legal action.

"If she had never presented with any symptoms, our policy would have been to send her back to Maine and ask her to quarantine at home," Christie said.

Christie and Gov. Cuomo have been sharply criticized for ordering mandatory quarantines, which step beyond Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines calling for asymptomatic people returning from Ebola-stricken countries only to avoid public transportation and large gatherings.

Christie said his state won't change the policy because of the CDC guidelines, which he called "incremental."

"We're trying to be careful here. This is common sense and the members of the American public think it's common sense," Christie said. "We're not moving an inch. Our policy hasn't changed and our policy will not change."

He also criticized the CDC's response in the case of Thomas Eric Duncan, the Texas man who was released from the hospital despite exhibiting Ebola symptoms and passed the illnesses onto two nurses after being readmitted. He died a few days later from the disease; the infected nurses are recovering.

"Folks got infected in Texas because they were behind on this," Christie said. "We're not going to have folks getting infected in New Jersey or other states in this country."

Governors in several other states, including Connecticut, have issued quarantine and monitoring orders of varying degree since Cuomo and Christie’s orders. An army commander in Italy has also ordered 21 days of isolation for soldiers returning from Liberia.

President Obama has told his Ebola team that any measures involving health care workers should be crafted to avoid unnecessarily discouraging people from responding to the outbreak. That's already happening, Doctors Without Borders said Monday. Some medical workers are reducing their time in the field to include potential quarantines afterward, the organization said.

"The best way to protect us is to stop the epidemic in Africa, and we need those health care workers, so we do not want to put them in a position where it makes it very, very uncomfortable for them to even volunteer to go," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Christie said on "Today" that he didn't think the quarantine orders in his state would stop volunteers from fighting Ebola in West Africa.

"These folks go over there because they want to help and want to make a difference, and we applaud them," Christie said. "But by the same token, when they're in direct contact with people with the Ebola virus, asking them to quarantine at home for 21 days, unless they're symptomatic, I don't think is draconian."

Some other governors, like Rhode Island Democrat Lincoln Chafee, urged his colleagues Monday to "ratchet down some of the hysteria," since scientists have repeatedly said that people carrying the virus are not contagious until they show symptoms.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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