Kaci Hickox, an American nurse who volunteered to fight Ebola with Doctors Without Borders, returned home to the United States over the weekend. Hickox was healthy, not to mention brave, but the country she returned to was neither. Fear, ignorance and political pandering had taken its toll.
Upon Hickox’ arrival and her volunteered statement that she was returning from Sierra Leone, she was stopped and detained at Newark International Airport for seven hours. She was then taken by police escort to a New Jersey hospital, where she was quarantined outside, in a tent, against her will and against the advice of public health experts. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie publicly pronounced Hickox as “obviously ill” and said she would not be allowed to leave quarantine for 21 days.
But Christie is not a physician, and Hickox was not and is not ill. She had been tested for Ebola and the tests came back negative. She has displayed no symptoms of Ebola. She cannot infect anyone with a disease that she does not have. She was forcibly quarantined due to a gross overreaction based not on science or medicine but on fear, and perhaps on political showboating.
And after insisting that he harbored no second thoughts about his decision and would not reconsider it, Christie today released Hickox and allowed her to leave for her home in Maine.
“It is not a sound public health decision and well thought out,” Hickox told CNN during the three days she was confined in that tent. “Many of the experts in the field have come out to agree with me. So I think that we need to stress the fact that we don’t need politicians to make these kinds of decisions. We need public health experts to make these decisions.”
That’s exactly right. If this is how we treat people who volunteer to go fight Ebola, fewer people will volunteer to fight Ebola. If fewer people volunteer to fight Ebola, the disease will spread more quickly and be more difficult to stop. A problem that is still manageable can become unmanageable. A fear-driven policy intended to try to protect against the disease will instead help it to spread.
Even before the botching of the Hickox case, international experts were warning that we’re facing a shortage of thousands of trained medical people in west Africa to confront the epidemic.** “It’s just an unintended consequence,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institutes of Health, pointed out. “If we don’t have our people volunteering to go over there, then you’re going to have other countries that are not going to do it, and then the epidemic will continue to roar.”
Logically, under the policy initially adopted by Christie, and also by officials in Florida, Illinois and New York, even those doctors and nurses who are treating Ebola patients here in the United States would have to be quarantined as well. Like Hickox, they too have been exposed to ill patients. It’s just dumb.
And I’m grateful that so far at least, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has not succumbed to the irrational and fearful. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is one of five U.S. airports designated to accept and screen travelers from nations dealing with Ebola, and it would set a particularly bad example if Atlanta, the home of the Centers for Disease Control, the most-respected disease fighters in the world, adopted a policy so at odds with scientific reality. It would also greatly complicate the CDC’s work at a time when it is needed most.
Surely, we can be brave enough to tolerate the infinitesimal odds of contracting Ebola here at home while others travel directly to the front lines to fight it on our behalf.
**(The country that has contributed more medical workers than any other nation is Cuba, and Cubans will help staff the clinics that US soldiers are building in west Africa.)