Panic about the Ebola virus is at an all time high as state governments on the East Coast have instituted mandatory quarantines for travelers who have been to affected countries. New York and New Jersey have been in the spotlight for their quarantine measures, which have led to one unaffected person being quarantined despite no symptoms of the disease. Epidemiologist Kaci Hickox was quarantined in New Jersey after working to fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone. Her account of how she was treated is entirely negative of the measure and calls into question the motivations behind it. Health officials have called the mandatory Ebola quarantines a bad decision that could affect public health, while lawyers are concerned about their constitutional status.
Hickox has twice tested negative for the Ebola virus, but remains in quarantine in New Jersey. Doctors have stated that there is no medical reason to hold her, but the mandatory 21-day time period for the quarantines as designated by the state government prevents her from going home. According to Hickox, the process of her quarantine was ridiculously ineffective and frightening, with no information being given to her about why she was being held or when she would be released. She noted that on her arrival in the country, a forehead scanner to take her temperature reported a normal reading and she showed no physical symptoms of the virus.
New Jersey government officials have contradicted many of Hickox statements, especially those regarding how she was treated in the hospital and whether she was informed of the reason for her quarantine. They maintain that she was handed a legal notice explaining everything. Governor Chris Christie has also contradicted much of the epidemiologist’s statements, consistently maintaining that she is ill. He has previously described her as “obviously ill” and made a statement wishing her a speedy recovery. Hickox reaction to that has been strong. “To make a statement that’s categorically untrue is just unacceptable,” she said. She also noted that he is not a doctor and that the governor has never even seen her, so is not a credible source as to her appearance, obvious or otherwise.
Five Eastern states have instituted mandatory quarantine protocols for the Ebola virus despite warnings from top health officials who have warned that it is a bad decision. Hickox herself said it was “not a sound public health decision” and she is backed up by the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Dr. Anthony Fauci noted that mandatory quarantines could serve as a disincentive for health professionals to assist the fight against Ebola in Africa. “The best way to stop this epidemic and protect America,” he told ABC, “is to stop it in Africa.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo revised his state;s quarantine policy to allow people to be held at their homes, a move made due to the negative reactions of many to the measure. Governor Chris Christie, however, has supported his quarantine measure unequivocally. In response to Hickox’s accusations he said, “I’m sorry if any way she is inconvenience,” but that avoiding anyone else catching the virus was more important than her individual feelings. The problem is that it is not just inconvenience which Hickox is reacting to. According to lawyers, her quarantine may have violated the constitution. If her story that she was held without explanation is confirmed, then the due process provisions in the Constitution have been violated and the quarantine is illegal.
Depending on how they operate, all the states’ quarantine measures could be illegal. While the government has the right to quarantine and isolate people in the event of an epidemic, due process, including notice and explanation, must be followed. That is the legal problem involved in the mandatory Ebola quarantines. The other problem is public support. Governor Cuomo had to tone down his measure because of public backlash. He may have decided to do so because he faces a re-election campaign and having voters mad at him over quarantines is not a good election strategy. Christie, who does not face an election, has not had to change anything in his measure.
Overall, mandatory quarantines for those returning from Ebola stricken countries is a bad decision. It has the potential to violate the Constitution and people’s natural rights. It has been panned by health professionals as a potentially harmless measure. Nevertheless, it remains in place in five states and there are no plans at this stage to change that fact.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury