Ebola quarantine of healthy travelers brings class action suit in Connecticut

Freetown, Sierra Leone. (Simon Davis/DFID)

The residents of Connecticut who were forced to stay in quarantine after returning from West Africa in 2014 were illegally detained, a lawsuit against the state charges. Students from the Yale Law School filed the class action suit against Gov. Dannel Malloy and state health officials on behalf of those affected. They charge that it was unconstitutional to quarantine travelers who were both asymptomatic and did not come in contact with anyone infected with Ebola.

The lawsuit builds on a report on Ebola quarantines published by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Yale Global Health Justice Partnership in December. It found that political leaders like Malloy and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stoked fears of a panic over Ebola by requiring quarantines. The issue came to a head when Kaci Hickox, a nurse with Doctors Without Borders, vocally denounced her forced quarantine ordered by Christie.

While the outbreak in West Africa is over, the concern is whether the state can impose similar restrictions or detentions on travelers in the future. With the spread of Zika in Latin America and growing public health concerns, such tactics could be used again. The effects of such measures are significant. Ryan Boyko, one of the two Yale public health students quarantined, suffered from depression and dropped out of school following the forced quarantine.

“Being quarantined made me feel like a criminal,” said Laura Skrip, the second Yale School of Public Health students quarantined, in a statement. “There was no scientific reason to confine me to my apartment, with no visitors and a police officer parked outside my door.”

Assunta Nimley-Phillips, another one of the plaintiffs in the case, had a similar experience. Police stood outside her home where six Liberian family members were under a quarantine order. The officers would check her every time she left the home. She was ordered to provide the temperatures of the six individuals, including two school-aged children, three times a day. State officials provided her little information and support about how to deal with a potential infection.

“They were treated like criminals, only because they were coming from Liberia,” said Nimley-Phillips about her family members in a New Haven Register report. ”Our family was never a threat to anybody.”

Connecticut recently announced that it would no longer monitor travelers entering the state after visiting Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone. Yale filed a Freedom of Information Act request and found that there was internal debate among state officials over the fact that quarantines were driven by politics, not science. The health department admitted that the outbreak and how to manage people traveling to and from the endemic countries was a new challenge for the state.

“They weren’t a verified threat; there was a possibility they could have been exposed to it,” said Christopher Stan, a spokesman for the Connecticut Public Health Department, in a New York Times report. “That’s why they were quarantined. It was a new thing, too. We hadn’t really quarantined people like this. It was a scary virus from abroad.”

While the case is specific to the state of Connecticut, it has wider implications for the rest of the country. Research into the United States’ domestic response to the outbreak shows that quarantines were implemented against 40 people formally in 18 states. Another 233 people faced de facto quarantines where there was no official declaration, but their lives were restricted under pressure from state or local officials. There were also at least 20 children banned from schools after traveling to West Africa or other countries that communities perceived to pose an Ebola threat.

The stigma associated with Ebola is a recurring theme in both the Yale report and lawsuit. Both argue that the quarantine reinforced the stigma and restricted the rights of individuals in the state. The stories of those affected confirm the negative effects.

“My personal freedom was sacrificed so Connecticut could seem tough on Ebola,” said Boyko in a New Haven Register report. “It was awful. I was isolated from my colleagues and my professors, unable to keep up with my lab or my teaching responsibilities.”

Information from the New York Times was used for this report.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.

  • humanicontrarian

    Good to see coverage of this issue. In researching for our ODI/HPG report on what Ebola tells us about the architecture, politics, culture of international aid, there was a lack of analysis on the meaning of the USA’s hysterical reaction to Ebola. There, we asked how it is that f”ear, panic and politics combined to produce policies such as flight bans and quarantines that threatened to undercut efforts to fight the disease, or even increased the risk of transmission.” That question must be placed into the context of an epidemic that posed astonishingly little actual threat to the American public. So what happens when there is an airborne strain of swine flu? What does it mean to global health security if the most powerful and important (in epidemic response terms) nation cannot be counted on to act rationally? Or, flipping the question, how do we create a global health security response that anticipates the fear-drunken giant…?

    A final thought: Is there nobody willing to challenge politicians now whipping up fear of immigrants by reminding people of how wrong they were the last time they feared a foreign bogeyman?