White House

Obama warns against strict quarantines for Ebola workers

President Barack Obama gestures while speaking at an event with American health care workers fighting the Ebola virus, Oct. 29, 2014, in the East Room of the White House in Washington.
President Barack Obama gestures while speaking at an event with American health care workers fighting the Ebola virus, Oct. 29, 2014, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. AP

President Barack Obama called for health care workers returning from treating Ebola patients in West Africa to be treated as “the heroes that they are,” amid continuing confusion and public anxiety over state health measures that call for some to be confined to their homes.

Obama warned there may be future cases of Ebola in the United States and that the only way to bring the risk to zero is to contain the outbreak at its source, in West Africa.

“If we’re not dealing with this problem there, it will come here,” he said at the White House, joined by his Ebola response coordinator, Ron Klain, and sharing a stage with doctors and nurses who have been to West Africa. “What we need right now is these shock troops who are out there leading globally. We can’t discourage that. We’ve got to encourage it and applaud it.”

Without naming any states, Obama warned against overly restrictive monitoring measures, saying, “If we’re discouraging our health care workers . . . from traveling to these places in need, then we’re not doing our job in terms of looking after our own public health and safety.”

Obama’s remarks came as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Wednesday ordered that all U.S. troops who travel to Liberia to help build Ebola treatment centers be quarantined for 21 days afterward, even though the service members will not come into direct contact with Ebola patients. The measure exceeds the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But Hagel noted that the troops are not volunteers and described the measure as a “safety valve.”

And in Maine, nurse Kaci Hickox, who was quarantined without her consent in New Jersey after returning from treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, said Wednesday that she won’t comply with health officials in Maine who want her to remain in her home and avoid public contact. Hickox went home to Maine after New Jersey officials released her on Monday.

The CDC issued revamped guidelines Monday, based on risk, for monitoring people who might have been exposed. The guidelines don’t carry the force of law, however.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest rejected suggestions that the differing policies were prompting confusion and noted that coordination between the CDC and New Jersey resulted in Hickox being released from a tent in a New Jersey hospital. Ernest said he was unfamiliar with Maine’s policies but that the White House had made it clear it prefers an approach that does not burden returning health care workers.

In a statement, Maine Gov. Paul R. LePage said his office has been working with state health officials “to seek legal authority to enforce the quarantine.” He said the Maine State Police will monitor Hickox’s home in Fort Kent “for both her protection and the health of the community.”

Federal officials have said they fear rigid state policies could deter health care workers from serving in West Africa and create false stigmas. CDC officials say the virus is not nearly as contagious as the flu or the cold and that only someone with active symptoms can transmit the disease. The CDC guidelines call for workers who have come into direct contact with the bodily fluids or the dead body of an Ebola patient to avoid public transportation and crowded places and to submit to daily monitoring for symptoms.

For those at reduced risk, the agency recommended daily monitoring by health officials and travel restrictions on a case-by-case basis.

Obama didn’t mention any states by name but implored Americans not to give in to fear or misinformation.

“We react clearly and firmly, even when others are losing their heads,” the president said.

He noted that of the seven Americans treated for Ebola, all have survived. One – Dr. Craig Spencer – remains hospitalized in New York.

Polls, however, suggest unease among many Americans, who overwhelmingly supported quarantine for travelers arriving from West Africa, according to a CBS News poll on Wednesday.

Eighty percent think U.S. citizens and legal residents returning from the region should be quarantined upon their arrival in the U.S. until it is certain they don’t have the virus. Just 17 percent of respondents said travelers should be allowed to enter the U.S. as long as they do not show symptoms.

Some have called for a travel ban, which the administration opposes. Obama said the U.S. cannot “hermetically seal ourselves off. 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.”

Hickox in an interview said she was “appalled” by the home quarantine and remained in good health and symptom free.

“I truly believe that this policy is not scientifically nor constitutionally just and so I am not going to sit around and be bullied by politicians and forced to sit in my home when I am not a risk to the American public,” she said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show.

On Wednesday, the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders expressed support for Hickox, who has worked for the group in several countries. In a statement, the group said it “respects Kaci’s right as a private citizen to challenge excessive restrictions being placed upon her.”

Doctors Without Borders already “supports and implements scientifically grounded monitoring measures for all returned aid workers,” based on the recommendations of public health experts, the statement said.

How the Defense Department will implement its quarantine, which could apply to as many as 4,000 troops, was largely unanswered Wednesday, as Hagel gave officials 15 days to iron out details. Among the unanswered questions are: Where will the quarantines happen? Will troops making transit stops through Ebola-infected countries be subjected to the quarantine?

Their mission is to construct health care facilities for Ebola patients, but they are not expected to come in contact with any. During an interview at the Washington Ideas Forum, Hagel said he made the order because the U.S. military will have more U.S. representatives on the ground in Liberia than any other government agency. And he said that the troops had not volunteered to go, unlike health care workers who largely have.

He said the policy was discussed among military families who “very much wanted a safety valve.”

Thus far, the first team of soldiers to return from Liberia is under quarantine at an Army base in Vicenza, Italy. Among them are Maj. Gen. Darryl Williams, who led the team. In all, 42 soldiers are under quarantine, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said.

The department plans to review the order again in 45 days, said Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.

There are currently 983 U.S. troops in Liberia and 121 in Senegal, which the World Health Organization declared free of Ebola on Oct. 17. In Liberia, the troops are tasked with building 17 Ebola treatment centers, each holding 100 beds. They’ve begun construction on three of them, Warren said, and they are not set to complete them for another six months.

Obama said he talked Wednesday with United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, who reported from West Africa that the military is setting up Ebola treatment units ahead of schedule and that laboratories the U.S. has established are cutting the time for diagnosing Ebola from seven days to less than a day.

Obama said the number of safe burial practices have doubled in Monrovia, adding that the progress has shown that Liberians are “increasingly willing to work as part of the public health teams.” 

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