WASHINGTON/CHICAGO — Quarantines imposed on travelers coming from Ebola-affected countries in West Africa are a “little bit draconian,” a senior U.S. health official charged on Sunday, saying they could discourage American health workers from going to the region to help fight the epidemic.
But the governors of New York and New Jersey, two of the states that have imposed the measures, defended the measures.
New York, New Jersey and Illinois imposed 21-day mandatory quarantines in the last two days for anyone arriving with a risk of having contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. They are the three West African countries that have borne the brunt of an epidemic that has killed nearly 5,000 people.
“I don’t want to be directly criticizing the decision that was made but we have to be careful that there are unintended consequences,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” But he called the measures, which go beyond federal regulations, “a little bit draconian.”
“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,” said Fauci.
The states’ policies were abruptly imposed after a New York City doctor was diagnosed with the disease on Thursday after coming home from treating patients in Guinea. Of particular concern to some New Yorkers was the fact that Dr. Craig Spencer was out and about around town between the time he got home and developed symptoms.
A nurse who returned on Friday through New Jersey’s Newark airport after working in Sierra Leone with Ebola patients, strongly criticized the quarantine policy on Saturday, describing hours of questioning and then transfer to a hospital isolation tent. On Sunday, she told CNN she “completely” did not understand the rationale for the policy.
Fauci reiterated what medical officials have stressed as Americans worry about Ebola: that it is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person, and is not transmitted by people who are not showing symptoms.
But New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, asked to respond to Fauci’s comment that it is not good science to quarantine people who are not symptomatic, said, “I don’t believe that when you’re dealing with something as serious as this that we can count on a voluntary system.”
“This is government’s job. If anything else, the government’s job is to protect the safety and health of our citizens,” he told the “Fox News Sunday” program.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it was “highly unlikely” a doctor coming back from West Africa would not cooperate with a quarantine. “But if you had someone that didn’t want to cooperate you can enforce it legally, there’s no doubt about that,” Cuomo told New York’s 103.9 FM radio station.
A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health said the state’s action was “to help quell fears,” while educating the public about how Ebola is not easily spread.
POLITICS OF EBOLA
In defending the new quarantine rules, Christie is emerging as a prominent critic of the Obama administration’s handling of the Ebola crisis.
The New Jersey governor is considered a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and his aggressive stance could give a boost to his party in the midterm elections on Nov. 4, when the party hopes to take control of the Senate.
Missteps in handling the first diagnosis of Ebola on U.S. soil – a Liberian visitor to Texas in September – have opened the door for Republican attacks on President Barack Obama and his administration.
Even so, only four people, including the Liberian who died in Dallas, have been diagnosed with Ebola in the United States.
A Republican lawmaker said lack of trust in the federal government led New York and New Jersey to take action, and said it was not a partisan issue.
“Governors of both parties are reacting to an absence of leadership and belief that the federal government knows what they are doing,” Congressman Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told “Meet the Press.” New Jersey’s Christie is a Republican, while New York’s Cuomo is a Democrat, as is Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.