States Should Not Issue Blanket Quarantine Orders for Medical Workers Returning from Ebola-Stricken Countries

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Vesna Jaksic Lowe, MS
Deputy Director of Communications, New York
vjaksiclowe [at] phrusa [dot] org
Tel: 917-679-0110

The decision by several states, including Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York, to impose a mandatory quarantine on health workers – mostly volunteers – returning from the three countries in West Africa where there is a significant Ebola outbreak should be reversed. Not only does the quarantine impose an unnecessary hardship on people, but in this case it also sends a message that contradicts what the public needs to know about the transmission of the virus, namely that it can only be transmitted by someone who is symptomatic and – even then – only through direct contact with bodily fluids, such as blood.

“We need political leaders who promote public health policies that help educate people – not ones that pander to panic and spread misinformation,” said Widney Brown, director of programs at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). “This policy effectively punishes the medical volunteers who are working to prevent the Ebola outbreak in West Africa from claiming more lives by quarantining them without any medical justification.”

Quarantines can be an appropriate public health tool, but such a drastic measure should only be employed when it can meet the widely recognized criteria established in the Siracusa Principles. When assessing the use of quarantines in the case of Ebola exposure, less drastic measures that could be equally effective should be considered first. Given that the first symptom of Ebola is fever, twice-daily temperature checks are adequate to monitor a person for symptoms so that he or she can be immediately and safely transported to a hospital with an isolation unit where Ebola can be treated.

In cases where an exposed person under observation refuses to comply with the temperature checks, it could be appropriate to impose some form of restriction of movement to ensure compliance. But even in this case, holding a health individual in an isolation unit in a hospital is a misuse of scarce resources.  

In the first case – to PHR’s knowledge – in which this compulsory quarantine was applied, a nurse returning from Sierra Leone was held in New Jersey in a tent, which reportedly had a portable toilet and no shower. In addition to the basic problem of being subjected to a mandatory quarantine, it is appalling that the nurse was held in substandard conditions that she described as inhumane.

PHR stressed that public health policies should be dictated by experts in public health and epidemiology, not by politicians succumbing to and feeding into the panic. Ebola is a serious disease, and the people seeking to address the outbreak in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone need assistance, including the help of doctors and nurses from the United States who step up and volunteer to provide desperately needed medical assistance. The imposition of this scientifically unsupported quarantine makes it harder for medical volunteers to respond to what is undeniably a crisis in West Africa.

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