Nonprofits Join Outcry Over Ebola Quarantines

After Doctors Without Borders nurse Kaci Hickox became the public face of an Ebola quarantine that she suggested was a human rights violation, several nonprofit groups supported her. The opposition led New York to soften its stance on quarantines, while New Jersey allowed Hickox to return to her home in Maine.

To say Kaci Hickox didn’t have a particularly great weekend is an understatement.

But by Monday, Hickox, a nurse with Doctors Without Borders, had been released from mandatory quarantine in New Jersey after returning from treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. She was removed from a Newark hospital three days after Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a policy to quarantine healthcare workers who had treated Ebola patients. Hickox was the first person to be quarantined under the policy, despite a preliminary blood test showing she did not have the disease.

Forced quarantines of healthcare workers with no symptoms of Ebola who have risked their lives to protect others are unnecessarily harsh and are not aligned with scientific evidence.

The quarantine, and the outcry that followed, highlighted concerns raised by various organizations about the treatment of aid workers in the days since Dr. Craig Spencer was hospitalized after experiencing symptoms of the disease upon returning to New York City. Spencer, who had been working in West Africa with Doctors Without Borders, received an Ebola diagnosis last Thursday.

Among the organizations speaking out on the issue:

Doctors Without Borders: The group said the two states’ new rules had muddied the waters for returning healthcare workers. “There is a notable lack of clarity about the new guidelines announced yesterday by state authorities in New York and New Jersey,” Executive Director Sophie Delaunay said on Saturday. “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.”

Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology: APIC, which represents medical professionals who specialize in infection prevention, emphasized that a blanket quarantine at the state level could be more dangerous than helpful, as it could lead to “increased difficulty” in finding aid workers to assist in the crisis. “Forced quarantines of healthcare workers with no symptoms of Ebola who have risked their lives to protect others are unnecessarily harsh and are not aligned with scientific evidence,” APIC said in a statement. “Quarantines may affect the healthcare worker’s ability to make a living and may also have negative emotional and social consequences as a result of being stigmatized for their service.”

Infectious Diseases Society of America: IDSA echoed APIC’s view. While noting that it backs efforts to minimize the risk of spreading Ebola, it emphasized in bold type that such approaches do not include involuntary quarantines. “IDSA does not support mandatory involuntary quarantine of asymptomatic healthcare workers returning from Ebola-affected areas,” the group wrote in a statement. “This approach carries unintended negative consequences without significant additional benefits.” IDSA recommended that policies established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health be followed.

Grappling With Backlash

The outcry changed the situation in New York and New Jersey. On Sunday, Cuomo’s office clarified the state’s guidelines, which allow asymptomatic individuals who had direct contact with Ebola patients to be quarantined at home for 21 days.

“My No. 1 job is to protect the people of New York, and this does that,” Cuomo said in comments reported by The New York Times.

Christie, meanwhile, defended his stance—while letting Hickox return home.

“I know she didn’t want to be there. No one ever wants to be in the hospital, I suspect, and so I understand that,” he said on Monday, according to CNN. “But the fact is, I have a much greater, bigger responsibility to the people and the public, and so I think when she has time to reflect, she will understand that as well.”

Kaci Hickox, the Doctors Without Borders nurse who was quarantined over the weekend. (handout photo)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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