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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

New Christie-Cuomo policy is rash, unhelpful

Published: October 31, 2014
Section: Opinions

In a world in crisis over how to contain and reverse the exponentially growing Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa, one would hope that the American media would try its best to cover it. Contrary to that belief, our media is busy reporting to death the situation that Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo of New Jersey and New York, respectively, have stirred. Their policy of forcefully quarantining anyone that has been in contact with an Ebola patient who arrives at Newark-Liberty or John F. Kennedy International Airports is rash, seasoned with just a hint of fear-mongering without any scientific backing. Although the policy means well, if it is not amended or reversed, it will backfire and conjure situations the governors are hoping to avoid.

These measures were taken not just with public health in mind; they had political motive. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that public support for this policy could be high, as the public obviously doesn’t want to catch Ebola, and it just so happens that Governor Cuomo is campaigning for re-election in next week’s election. However, as a New Yorker who doesn’t cry himself to sleep every night in pure fear of Ebola, I believe that the measures taken underscore an uninformed crop of politicians going overboard in the name of public safety and stirring both media and public panic.

We must remember that there is a certain epidemiology to Ebola that dictates that those who are infected but asymptomatic are virtually unable to spread the virus, as the to-be patient is not shedding the virus. The New York and Dallas metropolitan areas can rest easy knowing this. So even if a person who recently arrived from any of the afflicted countries (those most ravaged are Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea) is incubating the virus, this person cannot spread it to anyone. Even after becoming symptomatic, this person will be gravely ill, and unless anyone (who isn’t a health professional) is ignorant enough to come into contact with the expelled infectious fluids, it will be hard for anyone to catch it.

Therefore, there is no need for a quarantine of everyone who had contact with Ebola patients in West Africa. Until they develop symptoms, they aren’t a threat to the public and when they do become symptomatic, they will seek proper medical attention. Remember, a vast majority of those coming here from afflicted countries are healthcare workers, heroes who know what they’re doing. As long as the Dallas scenario (where proper precautions to protect medical staff weren’t put in place) doesn’t play out, everything should be fine.

Twenty-one days is a long time to sit around in quarantine and wait for something to happen, and since those quarantined are not a threat to the public until they become symptomatic, the mandatory quarantine is unnecessary.

Moreover, the mandatory 21-day quarantine is essentially akin to imprisonment for nothing. Kaci Hickox, a nurse who had been in Sierra Leone helping Ebola patients, was quarantined upon arrival at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey with a “fever” that wasn’t actually a fever. She explains how in her disgruntled state the forehead thermometer registered a false fever. Her oral temperature was normal. For days she had been kept against her will, asymptomatic, in an isolated tent at the decree of Governor Christie. Only after several negative Ebola tests did he let the nurse return home to Maine to serve her 21-day quarantine. Christie, in his defense, still maintains that she had a fever, the state acted according to the protocols and he won’t change them. To paraphrase Hickox, Christie isn’t a doctor, nor does he know anything about Ebola. Therefore, he shouldn’t be entitled to make such a case. Although she has been released back home to Maine, she is still under state-ordered mandatory quarantine and continues to defy it.

Policies like that enacted by Christie and Cuomo, and more recently Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, can overemphasize the threat of Ebola in the United States and cause unnecessary panic like what we saw with the suspected Ebola case right here in the Boston metro area.

Recently, a man who had recently traveled to West Africa walked into a Braintree medical facility with minor Ebola-like symptoms and caused a fuss that included an evacuation of the facility, the Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates. Ebola was later ruled out at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, but only after rampant media speculation. The media is so quick to jump on these situations that the public follows suit and panics, even though from the start the possibility of Ebola in the Braintree patient was incredibly small.

So why should Brandeis students care? Because Brandeis is handling it right. Our health center’s policy as outlined in an Aug. 20, 2014 statement recommends the CDC’s policy for universities having students coming from West Africa within the past 21 days. The Brandeis Health Center recommends those who have come from the afflicted region to reach out to the clinic and have a brief meeting with the staff in regards to their contact with Ebola patients in the region. After this, the Health Center may monitor the student for the 21-day incubation period, and will take appropriate action should the improbable happen. By no means will the university imprison you in a mandatory quarantine when you return from this region of Africa. Have no fear, Brandeis staffs the Health Center with doctors, not clones of Christie.

Brandeis’ way, perhaps toned up to require the mandatory observation of those who have traveled to the region and/or have been in contact with Ebola patients, is the best way to halt the spread of the disease in the United States given the virus’ virtual inability to spread while the infected person is asymptomatic. In fact, Florida Governor Rick Scott recently signed an order doing just this.

In the United States, where the health care system is able to handle the pickup and treatment of Ebola patients once they do become symptomatic, the risk to the public when this strategy is enacted correctly, when all precautions are taken, is next to nothing. The positive here is that obstructions to personal freedoms aren’t taken away with unnecessary quarantines, and without these controversial quarantines, the media can turn their cameras to where attention is actually needed, to West Africa, where the virus continues to rampage and destroy those living in nations with real corruption and real problems.

Impose the mandatory observation period nationally to get some peace and order to the American Ebola response system, then help those who actually need our help. Help Africa by stopping Ebola in Africa, or the result will be a real pandemic that will really threaten the people of the United States of America.