A leading U.S. health official raised serious concerns on Sunday about the the way several large states are responding to the Ebola crisis in West Africa.
So far, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Florida have imposed strict quarantine policies for health care workers returning from Ebola-stricken countries, including Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
The tough new policies followed reports that a New York doctor had tested positive for Ebola after returning home from treating victims of the virus in Guinea. The doctor’s diagnosis fueled growing concerns that health care workers returning home from West Africa could spread the virus on U.S. soil.
But Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the aggressive approach by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and others could deter workers from volunteering in the efforts to quell the outbreak in those countries.
“We need to be careful that there aren’t unintended consequences,“ Fauci said on NBC’s Meet the Press. He added that he didn’t want to be critical of the governors who imposed the new policies but that critically needed health workers shouldn’t automatically face three-week quarantines and other restrictions. “They’re really heroes, and imposing these draconian policies" could hurt the overall effort.
Fauci’s comments came after a Doctors Without Borders’ nurse wrote a detailed description published in the Dallas Morning News of her upsetting experience in being quarantined in Newark after returning from Sierra Leone. Kaci Hickox described her experience as “confusing and upsetting” and said she worried that other American health workers would be faced with the same treatment when returning from West Africa.
"I ... thought of many colleagues who will return home to America and face the same ordeal," Hickox wrote in an article published on Saturday. "Will they be made to feel like criminals and prisoners?"
Fauci said there are better ways to handle the workers returning home.
"Guidelines regarding how you handle people from coming back should always be based on the science, and the science tells us that people who are asymptomatic do not transmit," Fauci said.
He added, “That doesn't mean we're cavalier about it, but it means there are other steps you can take to protect the American people based on the scientific evidence that does not necessarily go so far as to possibly have unintended consequences of disincentivizing health care workers... We need those health care workers."
Still, Gov. Christie said he has “no second thoughts” about imposing a 21-day quarantine on health workers returning from West Africa.
"It was my conclusion that we needed to do this to protect the public health of the people of New Jersey," Christie said on Fox News Sunday. He predicted that more states will follow suit and that “the CDC will eventually come around to our point of view on this,” referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "I think this is a policy that will become a national policy sooner rather than later."
Still, health officials have repeatedly warned that the only way to stop an outbreak in the United States is to quell the virus at the source in West Africa. And they say imposing restrictions on the people working toward that goal could hinder the overall efforts.
Meanwhile, health officials are attempting to combat Ebola hysteria in the United States, where just four people have contracted the virus.
“The risk to the general public is vanishingly small,” Fauci said.
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