Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday imposed a 21-day quarantine on troops returning from anti-Ebola service in West Africa even as President Barack Obama reiterated his opposition to such restrictive steps for civilians.
While White House officials said military members face different circumstances than civilian health-care workers, the conflicting stances of the president and the Pentagon chief suggested an emerging split within the Obama administration over how best to respond to the Ebola crisis.
The crisis has also divided states, with the governors of New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Maine recently imposing more restrictive measures than than the leaders of other states.
Hagel signed an order implementing a recommendation from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that all service members coming home from Ebola response teams in West Africa be isolated from their peers for three weeks. His move came two days after Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, set a 21-day quarantine for potentially exposed members of the military’s largest service.
Hagel also directed that the Joint Chiefs conduct a review of the new regime within 45 days and help determine whether it should be continued past that point.
“The secretary believes these initial steps are prudent, given the large number of military personnel transiting from their home base and West Africa and the unique logistical demands and impact this deployment has on the force,” Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement. “The secretary’s highest priority is the safety and security of our men and women in uniform and their families.”
Kirby did not use the word “quarantine” but rather described the restrictions as “a 21-day controlled monitoring regime.”
About 900 U.S. service members are in West Africa, with as many as 4,000 targeted for possible deployment by Obama to help contain Ebola. Pentagon officials say they are not having direct contact with Ebola patients, but are training local health-care workers, building treatment centers, helping to run mobile labs and providing other logistical support.
Obama, however, said Americans’ safety and security does not require a travel ban for visitors from West Africa or a quarantine for American doctors, nurses and other health-care providers returning from the stricken region.
“We can’t hermetically seal ourselves off,” Obama said in the White House East Room, with some of the health-care workers who’ve gone to West Africa standing behind him.
“The nature of international travel and movement means that the only way to assure that we are safe is to make sure that we have dealt with the disease where, right now, it is most acute,” Obama said.
Obama said there will likely be another case of Ebola outside Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the West Africa countries that have been hardest hit by the contagion.
“And that’s true whether or not we adopt a travel ban, whether or not you adopt a quarantine,” Obama said. “It’s the nature of diseases. As long as Ebola exists anywhere in the world, no one could promise that there won’t be any more cases in America or any place else.”
Obama appeared irritated by suggestions that he take tougher steps against Ebola.
“When I hear people talking about American leadership, and then are promoting policies that would avoid leadership and have us running in the opposite direction and hiding under the covers, it makes me a little frustrated,” Obama said.
Praising health-care workers who’ve traveled to West Africa as “American heroes, Obama said that “they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Obama’s comment appeared to be a dig at governors in New York, Illinois Maine and New Jersey -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- who’ve imposed quarantines for travelers from West Africa.
Kaci Hickox, a nurse who just returned from treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, was briefly placed in quarantine in New Jersey upon her arrival at Newark International Airport before traveling home to Maine. She is now fighting an attempt to quarantine her there, saying it is unnecessary because she is not symptomatic.
Ebola has up to a 21-day incubation period in the body before its symptoms appear. Only people who are symptomatic can transmit the disease to others, and solely through contact with bodily fluids. It is not an airborne virus.
Dr. Kent Brantly, the Fort Worth, Texas, physician who became the first American to contract Ebola while treating people in West Africa, introduced Obama for his East Room speech.
Brantly was declared Ebola-free after treatment in the United States. One person has died of Ebola in the country, Thomas Duncan, a Liberian man who passed away at a Dallas hospital Oct. 8.
Two nurses who treated Duncan later contracted Ebola but were successfully treated for the disease. After they became ill, the Centers for Disease Control tightened its guidelines for health-care workers who care for or have contact with Ebola patients.
In addition to insisting that a quarantine isn’t necessary, Obama and his top aides have said they don’t want to discourage doctors, nurses and other health-care workers from traveling to West Africa to fight the scourge.
After reports that the Joint Chiefs had recommended the military quarantine, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Tuesday downplayed the differing approaches of the nation’s defense and civilian leaders.
“I don’t think it’s a particular surprise to anybody who understands that it’s not uncommon for the policy that’s implemented for civilians to be different than the policy that’s implemented for our military service personnel,” Earnest told reporters.
Earnest said that only “a couple of dozen health-care workers a week” are returning from West Africa, a much smaller number than the “thousands of military personnel who have been or will be deployed to West Africa.”