Ordinarily, 33-year-old nurse Kaci Hickox would have been hailed for her volunteer work with Ebola patients in West Africa and given a warm welcome upon her return to the United States.
These aren’t ordinary times, however. Hickox was hustled into an isolation tent in a Newark Hospital and held against her will under a 21-day quarantine policy enacted by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Hickox, who angrily criticized her treatment from the confines of her spartan tent and hired a lawyer to defend her civil rights, was ultimately found to be symptom-free and was released to home quarantine in Maine — although her threat to end even that phase of monitoring signals a potential showdown with authorities.
Other states have followed suit, making use of their police powers to quarantine passengers arriving at local airports. This patchwork response sows confusion and seems grounded more in politics and fear of the unknown than in science. It also has a troubling unintended consequence: punishing the altruistic health care workers who are contributing their skills to a global effort to stop the epidemic at its source. That global effort needs more troops and supplies, not fewer. Absent a vaccine, sending in expert medical support and treatment from abroad seems like the best prescription for the countries stricken by the virus.
States have broad authority to regulate the public health of their residents, and even staunch defenders of individual freedom recognize that infringement of liberty is sometimes warranted in a public health crisis. But public policy founded on hysteria runs a risk of trampling the most basic rights.
At the very least, state officials need to establish safe and habitable conditions and make sure that those in quarantine are afforded due process under the law. In an effort to bring order to confusing policy at the state level, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new guidelines Monday. The agency called for a framework of restrictions based on the extent to which a patient might be exposed to Ebola. In Massachusetts, Deval Patrick has wisely chosen a middle ground; a policy of active monitoring for health care workers who have returned from West Africa fits within the federal guidelines.
Scientists seem secure in the knowledge that Ebola can’t be spread through casual contact, particularly if a patient shows no symptoms. Governors may feel political pressure to do something. But observing the federal guidelines insures public safety and invests a necessary level of trust in health care workers returning from the front lines, insuring that they are not needlessly forced into isolation and treated like enemy combatants.