The news: If you want to see what government Ebola anxiety looks like in action, look no further than the disturbing ordeal of nurse Kaci Hickox, whose harrowing tale reveals a delicate balancing act between precaution and overreaction by politicians responding to the presence of Ebola in the U.S.
Hickox, an epidemiologist, volunteered for a month with Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone, one of the three West African countries at the heart of the ongoing Ebola epidemic. When she landed in Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey on Friday, she showed no visible signs of Ebola and had normal temperature readings.
But health officials forcibly took her to a hospital, where she was told she would be placed under a mandatory 21-day quarantine recently instituted by New York and New Jersey Govs. Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie, despite the fact that her blood test came back negative for Ebola. Christie backed off this policy Monday and will now allow Hickox to return to her home in Maine, where local health officials will decide how to track her health.
Hickox recounted her experience an op-ed for the Dallas Morning News:
Eight police cars escorted me to the University Hospital in Newark. Sirens blared, lights flashed. Again, I wondered what I had done wrong.
I had spent a month watching children die, alone. I had witnessed human tragedy unfold before my eyes. I had tried to help when much of the world has looked on and done nothing.
At the hospital, I was escorted to a tent that sat outside of the building. The infectious disease and emergency department doctors took my temperature and other vitals and looked puzzled. "Your temperature is 98.6," they said. "You don't have a fever but we were told you had a fever."
After my temperature was recorded as 98.6 on the oral thermometer, the doctor decided to see what the forehead scanner records. It read 101. The doctor felts my neck and looked at the temperature again. "There's no way you have a fever," he said. "Your face is just flushed."
My blood was taken and tested for Ebola. It came back negative.
I sat alone in the isolation tent and thought of many colleagues who will return home to America and face the same ordeal. Will they be made to feel like criminals and prisoners?
This is what fear-based policy looks like. The New York metro area has been at the center of Ebola anxiety since the revelation that Dr. Craig Spencer, another Doctors Without Borders volunteer who was recently diagnosed with Ebola after returning from Guinea, traveled freely throughout New York after his return. While Spencer has since been quarantined, many have expressed anxiety that Spender could have unwittingly spread the disease throughout the Big Apple, despite the fact that these fears are relatively unfounded.
Since then, Cuomo and Christie have announced a strict, joint policy of a mandatory, 21-day quarantine for anyone flying through Newark or John F. Kennedy International Airport who has had contact with Ebola patients. "The government's job is to protect safety and health of our citizens," Christie said on Fox News Sunday, defending the policy. "I have no second thoughts about it."
But though Christie described Hickox as "obviously ill," the nurse retorted the governor never once laid eyes on her, and there is no medical basis for her continued confinement.
"To quarantine everyone, in case, you know, when you cannot predict who may develop Ebola or not, and to make me stay for 21 days, to not be with my family, to put me through this emotional and physical stress, is completely unacceptable," Hickox told CNN on Sunday. "I feel like my basic human rights have been violated."
"It is not based on any clear public health evidence," Hickox added. "It's not the recommendation of public health and medical experts at this point. You know, I think we have to be very careful about letting politicians make medical and public health decisions, and all of the evidence about Ebola shows that if you are not symptomatic, you are not infectious."
Why it matters. Hickox's worry that her colleagues might feel like "criminals and prisoners" upon returning from their volunteer work has a real basis for concern; given how West Africa is currently strapped for volunteers and resources, America can't afford discouraging a potential volunteer if it wants to stop this epidemic at its source.
Officials from the Health and Human Services Department, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and even U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power have criticized the new policy for not only being medically unsound but for effectively punishing medical volunteers for their work.
"All of us need to make clear what these health workers mean to us and how much we value their services, how much we value their contribution," Power said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. "We need to make sure they are treated like conquering heroes."
Even New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has come out publicly against the handling of Hickox's case. "This hero was treated with disrespect and was not given a clear direction," he said at a news conference on Sunday. "We owe her better than that, and all the people who do this work, better than that."
The federal government is already taking steps to strike a balance between the rights and dignity of aid workers and public safety. On Sunday, New York released new guidelines for Ebola quarantines following pressure from the White House.
As for Hickox herself, she plans to file a suit over her confinement. "I just feel like fear is winning right now, and when fear wins, everyone loses," she told CNN. It's an important thought to keep in mind during these worrying times.