U.S. Federal and State governments at odds over Ebola quarantines

A photo taken by Hickox from inside her isolation tent.

New York and New Jersey do not see eye to eye with the federal government when it comes to preventing the spread of Ebola. The governors of the two states enacted rules that impose quarantines on anyone deemed a high risk of Ebola while in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea. It led to the detention and forced quarantine of Doctors Without Borders nurse Kaci Hickox over the weekend.

This morning, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced Hickox can return to her home in Fort Kent, Maine, to finish out her mandatory quarantine.

“It’s always been about her condition. And if her condition permits release, then we will work with the state officials in Maine to make sure she could go home,” said Christie. “Our preference always is to quarantine people in their homes.”

Hickox, who returned from Sierra Leone through Newark Liberty International Airport, was stopped at immigration, questioned, tested and moved into an isolation tent at Newark’s University Hospital. The Maine resident detailed her ordeal in an OpEd for the Dallas Morning News on Saturday.

“My blood was taken and tested for Ebola. It came back negative. I sat alone in the isolation tent and thought of many colleagues who will return home to America and face the same ordeal. Will they be made to feel like criminals and prisoners?” wrote Hickox.

The policy for quarantine in New York and New Jersey is in opposition with recommendations made by the U.S. government and its leading health officials. The Ebola policies in the two states are “a little bit draconian,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, while on Meet the Press Sunday.

This undated image provided by University of Texas at Arlington shows Kaci Hickox. (AP Photo/University of Texas at Arlington)

This undated image provided by University of Texas at Arlington shows Kaci Hickox. (AP Photo/University of Texas at Arlington)

“I don’t want to be directly criticizing the decision that was made but we have to be careful that there are unintended consequences,” he said. “The best way to stop this epidemic is to help the people in West Africa, we do that by sending people over there, not only from the U.S.A. but from other places.”

The state policies can be traced to recent incidents in the respective states. Dr. Craig Spencer tested positive for Ebola last week in New York City. Health officials were forced to trace back his movements while in the city from the subway to a bowling alley. Similarly, fears were sparked when Dr. Nancy Snyderman, an NBC News correspondent whose cameraman had contracted Ebola while they traveled in Liberia, left her home in Princeton to pick up food from a restaurant.

Hickox, Doctors Without Borders and others have been vocal about their displeasure with her forced quarantine. She told CNN that the ordeal has taken a significant mental toll on her. She went on to say she feels like her “basic human rights have been violated.” And she is taking legal action to challenge that very point. Lawyer Norman Siegal, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, filed paperwork to challenge the legality of holding Hickox.

The White House reached out the the governors of the two states, Christie and Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, about the quarantine rules. A statement about the conversations makes it clear that the administration strongly opposes the policies that are the result of public pressure to prevent the spread of Ebola.

“We have let the governors of New York, New Jersey and other states know that we have concerns with the unintended consequences of policies not grounded in science may have on efforts to combat Ebola at its source in West Africa,” the Obama administration official said in a statement.

Christie and Cuomo have thus far responded differently. The New Jersey governor, a potential presidential candidate in 2016, said the rule protects the citizens of New Jersey. He added that he believes the CDC and others will “eventually will come around to our point of view on this.”

“I don’t believe that when you’re dealing with a serious situation like this that we can count on a voluntary system; this is the government’s job,” said Christie on Fox News Sunday morning.

It took continued pressure throughout the weekend to see Christie change his mind on how to treat Hickox. Cuomo took a slightly different tactic. Medical workers returning from the three countries will now be allowed to stay in their own homes and receive compensation for lost income while in isolation. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was a vocal critic of Hickox’s treatment in New Jersey. He provided support for his governor when the policy shift was announced on Sunday.

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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.