NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House has told states that have imposed mandatory quarantines for some travelers from Ebola-hit West Africa that the policy could impede the fight against the disease, while the first health worker isolated under the rules plans to sue.
Kaci Hickox, a nurse placed in 21-day quarantine in a New Jersey hospital after returning from treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, will contest her quarantine in court, her attorney said on Sunday, arguing the order violates her constitutional rights.
New Jersey and New York are imposing quarantines on anyone arriving with a high risk of having contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, where the epidemic has killed nearly 5,000 people. Illinois and Florida said they were taking similar steps.
The White House voiced its concern to the governors of New York and New Jersey about the potential impact of quarantine orders, a senior administration official said on Sunday.
“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.
Medical professionals note that Ebola is extremely difficult to catch. It is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person and is not transmitted by people who are not showing symptoms.
Confinement of the nurse at a Newark, New Jersey hospital raises constitutional and civil liberties issues, given that she remains asymptomatic and has not tested positive for Ebola, said her attorney Norman Siegel, a prominent civil liberties lawyer.
“The policy is overly broad when applied to her,” he said.
The new rules were imposed a day after a New York doctor, Craig Spencer, was diagnosed with Ebola on Thursday after he returned from treating patients in Guinea.
Traveling in West Africa, Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was asked about the risk that mandatory quarantines might have in attracting health workers to West Africa.
She said she understood some people might be afraid of a case like Spencer’s. Power was in Guinea’s capital Conakry on Sunday and planned to visit Liberia and Sierra Leone for a first-hand view of the global response to Ebola.
“We’ve got to find a way to address that fear, but we can’t do so in a manner that undermines our ability to deal with the problem at its source,” she told Reuters. “I think that balance can be struck.”
The doctor with Ebola in New York, now in isolation, moved freely around the city before he had symptoms that would make him contagious.
He appeared slightly improved but remained in serious but stable condition on Sunday, health officials said.
Hickox slammed the quarantine in an interview on CNN, describing hours of questioning after arriving at Newark Liberty International Airport and her transfer to a hospital isolation tent.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, at a news conference, did not directly criticize the quarantine policy but took issue with how Hickox had been treated.
“This hero, coming back from the front having done the right thing, was treated with disrespect,” the mayor said. “We owe her better than that.”
On the “Fox News Sunday” program, Christie defended the policy. “If anything else, the government’s job is to protect the safety and health of our citizens,” he said.
Spencer and Hickox worked with Doctors Without Borders, a charity that is a leading part of international efforts to fight the epidemic.
Only four people have been diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. The first diagnosis on U.S. soil, a Liberian visitor to Texas in September who has died, was riddled with missteps. Two nurses who treated the Liberian man contracted the disease but have recovered.
Additional reporting by Howard Schneider in Washington, Jonathan Allen and Sebastien Malo in New York, Michelle Nichols in Conakry; Writing by Lewis Krauskopf and Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Frances Kerry, Jeffrey Benkoe and Nick Zieminski