Quarantanamo, New Jersey


Late Friday, governors Cuomo and Christie announced a mandatory 21-day quarantines for anyone arriving in the US through the Newark and JFK airports if they had direct contact with Ebola patients in Guinea, Liberia, or Sierra Leone. Cuomo blinked yesterday and relaxed the new rule for his state after strong objections from public health groups and the White House:

Originally, Cuomo and … Christie announced a joint initiative to require a governmental quarantine for 21 days for all health care workers flying into their states. Illinois soon followed suit. But under the new guidelines, Cuomo said returning health care workers can instead quarantine themselves in their homes for 21 days, and will receive at least two unannounced house calls from local health officials. The state will provide services like food and medicine if the health-care worker needs it. Health care workers will also monitor their symptoms, as has been the standard for the vast majority of people returning from work in the region. “If their organization does not pay for the three weeks, we will,” Cuomo said during a press conference Sunday night.

Christie has also walked back his order somewhat. Nurse Kaci Hickox, the first person subjected to the New Jersey quarantine order, is set to be released today and allowed to finish her quarantine at her home in Maine after threatening to take legal action against the state over her treatment:

The nurse’s treatment has drawn withering criticism from both public health officials and the nurse herself. At University Hospital in Newark, Ms. Hickox has been kept in an isolation tent with a portable toilet, but no shower or television. … Ms. Hickox called her treatment inhumane and castigated Governor Christie for saying she was “obviously ill” when she displayed no symptoms of Ebola.

Kent Sepkowitz calls these quarantine orders an overreaction that won’t do anything for public health:

Indeed, there is a consequence to Christie and Cuomo’s decision that endangers the safety of the rank and file of New Jersey and New York far more than it protects it. Searching for a bump in some internal poll or perhaps because it feels good to make a damn decision once in a while, the governors know but choose to ignore the obvious big fact: There is a larger crisis occurring in redoubts well beyond Trenton and Albany. Their move, though perhaps it plays well now, will have a desiccating impact on volunteerism; this in turn will make the African epidemic worse, which will make it more likely cases will appear in the United States, which will increase the risk of Ebola for John Q. Public as he wanders through Trenton and Albany, Brooklyn and Newark.

Cohn piles on:

It’s also an open question whether the quarantine reduces anxiety or intensifies it. That’s particularly true in this case, because Cuomo’s statements on Friday, at least as relayed by the press, left the impression that a non-symptomatic Ebola patient could spread the disease on the subwaythe very notion that public health officials had spent the previous 24 hours explaining wasn’t true. That’s one reason that officials from the Obama Administration, the CDC and the New York City Department of Public Health seemed not at all happy about Friday’s announcement. The other is that, based on what I’m reading in outlets like the Times and hearing from insiders, they weren’t so much consulted about the decision as informed of it at the last minute, as a fait accompli.

So does Josh Voorhees:

If Cuomo, a Democrat, and Christie, a Republican, do believe they’re acting in the public’s best interest, then they haven’t done their research. Public health experts have made it clear that quarantining asymptomatic individuals will do little if any good. More troubling is the risk of a cascade of unintended consequences that could make it more difficult to contain the virus in West Africa, where it has already claimed more than 5,000 lives and will likely claim thousands more.

At best, the bipartisan pair is giving in to the fears of a misinformed public. At worst, Christie and Cuomo—whose respective presidential ambitions are no secret—are capitalizing on those fears to score cheap political points by appearing to be guardians of their constituents’ safety. The chance to bolster their respective profiles appears too good for them to pass up, even if such gains are paid for by risking West African lives.

The orders might even be unconstitutional:

Lawrence Gostin, a law professor at Georgetown University who has been in touch with Hickox about her legal options, said he thought the quarantine order was illegal and unconstitutional. He noted that since you can’t catch Ebola from someone unless they are both infected and showing symptoms, Hickox poses no danger to the public. “The courts are very suspicious when you deny a whole class of people their liberty,” he said. “She’s being detained because she’s a member of a large class of people who happened to have been in the region.”

But Jazz Shaw is disappointed in Cuomo for backing off:

Having them stay at home is doable, but only if we have confidence that they actually will stay at home, rather than going out bowling, playing basketball and riding the subway. That will require monitoring, but the monitors need to look like bellhops more than prison bulls. It’s a tricky situation to be sure, but it could be handled. Sadly, it seems that Cuomo has left Christie hanging in the wind and will – as predicted – bend in the direction of Washington.