State governors stand firm on Ebola quarantines despite White House pressure

Written by Reuters | New York | Updated: Oct 27 2014, 18:04pm hrs
The governors of New York and New Jersey on Sunday stuck to new plans to quarantine health workers returning to their hometowns from countries with Ebola epidemics, despite pressure from the White House, but emphasized that people could stay at home while in isolation.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo struck a more conciliatory tone on Sunday about the new quarantine policy after the White House said that mandatory isolation could impede the Ebola fight.

Responding to concerns that mandatory quarantine would inhibit doctors and nurses from traveling to West Africa, Cuomo said New York wanted to encourage medical workers to go, while also protecting public safety at home.

Healthcare workers and travelers exposed to Ebola and who live in New York can stay in their homes for the 21-day quarantine, checked upon twice daily by healthcare professionals, Cuomo said, adding that the state would provide financial assistance if needed.

The White House had voiced its concern to the governors of New York and New Jersey about the potential impact of quarantine orders, a senior administration official said.

"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.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie first announced the quarantine policy on Friday, and on Sunday night reiterated that the terms had not changed.

A New Jersey resident who had contact with someone with Ebola would be quarantined at home. Non-residents would be transported home if feasible or quarantined in New Jersey.

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"These people are extraordinary for their valor and their courage and their compassion," Cuomo said. "Anything we can do to encourage it, we want to do." New York was making no change in its policy from what was announced on Friday, he added.

Christie sounded less placating than Cuomo in remarks the New Jersey governor made about the quarantined nurse, who publicly slammed the hours of questioning she underwent at Newark Liberty International Airport and her transfer to a hospital isolation tent.

That nurse, the first health worker isolated under the rules, plans to sue.

Kaci Hickox, who was 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, New York and Illinois 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.

"I understand that this has made this woman uncomfortable, and I'm sorry that she's uncomfortable," Christie told reporters. "The fact is I have the people in New Jersey as my first and foremost responsibility to protect."

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.

Angry over her confinement, Hickox, a Texas native, planned to file a federal lawsuit this week, her attorney said. She remains asymptomatic and has not tested positive for Ebola, said her attorney, prominent civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel.

The new rules were imposed a day after a New York doctor, Craig Spencer, was diagnosed with Ebola after he returned from treating patients in Guinea.

Spencer moved freely around the city before he had symptoms that would make him contagious.

Now hospitalized in isolation, he appeared slightly improved but remained in serious but stable condition on Sunday, health officials said.

Spencer and Hickox worked with Doctors Without Borders, a charity closely involved in 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.