Who would have thought that Doctors Without Borders would need a public relations boost?
The organization’s medical personnel traverse the world, often at great personal risk, to maintain hospitals and clinics in the midst of wars, famines and epidemics. Their work is unquestionably heroic.
But that’s nothing compared to a grandstanding politician, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
The other day Christie stood before reporters and goaded Doctors Without Borders nurse Kaci Hickox to sue his state. “Get in line,” Christie barked, as if a lawsuit concerning Ebola were on par with a tax dispute. “I’m happy to take it on.”
Hickox is considering legal action over her mandatory quarantine upon returning from Sierra Leone, where she treated Ebola patients. After she arrived by plane in New Jersey, officials ordered her to be warehoused in a plastic tent for monitoring — against her will.
After a few days in quarantine, Hickox was allowed to leave New Jersey for her home in Maine. But the same set of arguments followed her. State police trailed her on a bike ride as she defied the state’s order to stay in isolation for the remainder of the 21-day incubation period, until Nov. 10.
Can we trust trained medical personnel always to act with due consideration for public safety. That’s a leap. Rules will be necessary.
But on the need for a quarantine, science sides with Hickox. There was no need for it. People who are not showing symptoms of Ebola are not contagious. And Hickox tested repeatedly negative for the virus. Maine is being less stringent than New Jersey, but Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is considering a court order to keep her isolated in the home she shares with a boyfriend.
Clearly, these governors are reacting to public fear. If you listen to the howls of talk radio, Armageddon is upon us.
The last thing the nation needs is a hodgepodge of differing rules on how to monitor people, with mandatory quarantines in some states but not in others. Worse still are rules dictated by governor who wants to look tough, or is afraid of being pilloried as being weak with elections days away.
New Jersey is joined by New York, which mandates quarantine for people if they have had “direct contact” with an Ebola patient in one of the countries where the disease is still spreading. Illinois also requires mandatory 21-day quarantine for high-risk workers.
LePage has waffled. At one point he told reporters that he’d be open to a blood test to determine if Hickox is Ebola free. Then he indicated that merely following the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention might suffice. CDC is calling for workers who have worked with Ebola patients to be monitored and to avoid public places, but it doesn’t advise complete isolation, much less quarantining. Then LePage regressed to talk of a court order to keep Hickox inside her home.
Where is C. Everett Coop when we need him?
The U.S. has no surgeon general. The doctor nominated by the White House was opposed by conservatives who feared that he might also warn about the hazards of guns. So there is no strong voice to calm the hysteria on Ebola, because some politicians grow hysterical at the mere mention of the fact that mishandled guns can cause accidents.
Great. Who needs professional perspective?
Of the 700 Doctors Without Borders medical personnel that have traveled to West Africa since March, only three (one American) have contracted Ebola as of the end of October.
One person has died of the disease in the U.S., Thomas Eric Duncan. Duncan was the Liberian man who arrived in Dallas. Hospital officials there made a huge mistake by sending Duncan home after his initial emergency room visit. Three days later he grew so ill that he was admitted, and a diagnosis of Ebola was confirmed. Two nurses who treated Duncan contracted the virus.
What happened in Dallas greatly influenced how other medical centers will handle further cases.
We can only hope the Hickox controversy will influence more clear-headed thinking from state officials, leading to an alignment of rules. Calming the public’s fears should be the goal, not ratcheting them up by dismissing medical knowledge.
Defiance by politicians offers little to ending the threat of Ebola taking more lives.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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