Mandatory Ebola Quarantines Face Federal Fire

October 27, 2014
Davy James, Associate Editor

Federal officials are questioning state policies that mandate a 21-day quarantine of health care workers who treat Ebola patients.

Over the weekend, federal officials roundly criticized new guidelines in New York and New Jersey that place all health care workers who treat Ebola patients under a mandatory 21-day quarantine.

After Craig Spencer, MD, was confirmed positive for the Ebola virus in New York last week following his work with patients in West Africa, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced the new state policies, which clash with the voluntary quarantines recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It's too serious a situation to leave it to the honor system of compliance," Cuomo told the Associated Press.

The New York Times reported that the White House disagreed with the policy and questioned the need and effectiveness of the mandatory quarantines. An unnamed senior administration member said in the report that the decision was “uncoordinated, very hurried, an immediate reaction to the New York City case that doesn’t comport with science.”

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, MD, told several media outlets that the quarantines would deter health care workers from volunteering to aid in the fight against Ebola. Doctors Without Borders echoed similar sentiments after 1 of their nurses was quarantined in New Jersey.

“While measures to protect public health are of paramount importance, they must be balanced against the rights of health workers returning from fighting the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to fair and reasonable treatment and the full disclosure of information to them, along with information about intended courses of action from local and state health authorities,” the organization wrote in a press release.

On October 24, 2014, Doctors Without Borders nurse Kaci Hickox, who had treated Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, was quarantined after arriving at Newark Liberty Airport. Preliminary blood tests indicated that Hickox did not have Ebola.

Upon her arrival, Hickox’s temperature was measured and shown to be normal, but she was still detained at the airport. Her temperature was measured again with a forehead temperature reader, which revealed a slight elevation in temperature.

Hickox was subsequently transported by police escort to Newark University Hospital by medical personnel in full protective gear.

“There is a notable lack of clarity about the new guidelines announced yesterday by state authorities in New York and New Jersey,” said Sophie Delaunay, executive director of Doctors Without Borders, in a statement released on October 24, 2014. “We are attempting to clarify the details of the protocols with each state’s departments of health to gain a full understanding of their requirements and implications.”

After her arrival at the hospital, Hickox was placed in a tent set up as an isolation ward where her temperature was again taken with an oral thermometer and subsequently reported to be normal.

Hickox remains in isolation and has not yet been informed of any next steps, including additional blood tests to confirm Ebola infection. Officials have not yet clearly indicated how long she must remain in isolation, according to Doctors Without Borders.

“I sat alone in the isolation tent and thought of many colleagues who will return home to America and face the same ordeal,” Hickox wrote in a blog post for the Dallas Morning News. “Will they be made to feel like criminals and prisoners?”