Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Strategies for Combatting Ebola

By Alexander GomezPublished November 9, 2014

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As the first cases of Ebola appear on United States soil, federal, state, and local governments struggle to create preventative action. The current quarantine initiative is being criticized by both human rights activists and the scientific community.
By Alexander Gomez, 11/9/2014

            As the Ebola epidemic finally reaches our shores, the federal and state governments are scrambling to produce solutions that mitigate the effects of the highly infectious disease. As of late, the strategy employed by these two entities has been quarantine. The premise of this strategy is simple--as healthcare workers and other travelers return from areas stricken by Ebola, they will be isolated and monitored in order to completely eliminate the possibility that they may spread the disease.

            However, this strategy is not without controversy. As the federal government attempts to handle the situation as a nation, they are facing backlash from both state governments and individuals. Governors are stepping in and implementing their own policies. States such as New York, New Jersey, and Illinois are imposing their own mandatory quarantines.  These policies require citizens to be quarantined for up to 21 days--even if they are asymptomatic. There has been an obvious miscommunication between governments as there is no set procedures agreed upon for quarantines. Federal guidelines differ from state guidelines, which may also ultimately differ from the guidelines seen in large cities, such as New York City and Chicago. Each government entity has their own interpretation of what a quarantine is and which citizens will be subjected to it. Some say that the system should be voluntary, but others think that citizens should not have a choice.  At the most extreme ends, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stated, "I don't believe when you're dealing with something as serious as this that we can count on a voluntary system. This is government's job.

            The sentiments held by public officials like Christie are sparking a human rights debate. Citizens like Kaci Hickox, a nurse returning from working with Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone, are fighting against the mandatory nature of the policy. Hickox returned to the United States and was immediately questioned by government officials. Although she was asymptomatic and tested negative for Ebola in preliminary trials, it was decided that she was a danger to public health. She was ultimately taken to a hospital for quarantine and kept in subpar conditions. Now, she has assembled a legal team, and will attempt to gain her freedom.

NOTE: As of submission, Hickox has been allowed to leave quarantine in New Jersey and was allowed to travel to Maine, where she will be subject to state procedure.

            Other complaints with the quarantine system arise from the fact that the procedure is reactionary rather than based in science. In making the decision to quarantine citizens who return from Ebola-stricken areas, public health experts were not consulted. In the case of New York City, a public official revealed that the city's Health Commissioner was not even told about the quarantine before it became public. The sensationalism of the story is also causing panic and frustration that may arise as an externality affecting the relief efforts in Ebola-stricken areas. Many experts believe that the treatment of individuals like Hickox will deter future volunteers from traveling abroad to help combat the spread of the disease. With these developments in mind, it is clear that the current policies implemented are not appropriate. It is now up to our country's leaders to work together in order to find a solution that is able to protect citizens from disease without infringing on their freedoms.