NEW YORK — Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sunday night revised guidelines for the mandatory, 21-day quarantining of medical workers returning from West Africa that he and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie ordered two days earlier, bringing the state closer in line with federal protocols.
He outlined the state’s policy at a nighttime news conference with New York City’s mayor after the Obama administration said it expressed concerns to Cuomo and Christie about their states’ mandatory Ebola quarantines. The revision also comes amid criticism of the treatment of a nurse returning from Sierrra Leone who was forcibly quarantined is a New Jersey hospital isolation unit even though she said had no symptoms and tested negative for Ebola.
Under the revised New York guidelines, medical professors who have had contact with Ebola patients will be quarantined at home and receive twice-daily monitoring if they have no symptoms. The state will also pay for any lost compensation, if they are not paid by a volunteer organization.
Cuomo had criticized Dr. Craig Spencer, who tested positive for Ebola on Thursday, for not obeying a 21-day voluntary quarantine. But on Sunday, he called the health care workers “heroes” and said his administration would encourage more medical workers to volunteer to fight Ebola.
Meanwhile, Kaci Hickox, the first nurse forcibly quarantined in New Jersey under the state’s new policy, said in a telephone interview with CNN that her isolation at a hospital was “inhumane,” adding: “We have to be very careful about letting politicians make health decisions.”
Saying the federal health guidelines are inadequate, Cuomo and Christie announced a mandatory quarantine program Friday for medical workers and other arriving airline passengers who have had contact with Ebola victims in West Africa, and Illinois soon followed suit. Twenty-one days is the incubation period for Ebola.
Christie on Sunday defended quarantining as necessary to protect the public and predicted it “will become a national policy sooner rather than later.”
“I don’t believe when you’re dealing with something as serious as this that we can count on a voluntary system,” said Christie, who is expected to run for the Republican nomination for president in 2016. He added: “I absolutely have no second thoughts about it.”
The Obama administration considers the policy in New York and New Jersey “not grounded in science” and conveyed its concerns to Christie and Cuomo, a senior administration official told The Associated Press. The official wasn’t authorized to comment by name and insisted on anonymity.
“The best way to protect us is to stop the epidemic in Africa, and we need those health care workers, so we do not want to put them in a position where it makes it very, very uncomfortable for them to even volunteer to go,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Fauci made the rounds on five major Sunday morning talk shows to argue that policy should be driven by science — and that science says people with the virus are not contagious until symptoms appear. And even then, infection requires direct contact with bodily fluids.
He said that close monitoring of medical workers for symptoms is sufficient, and warned that forcibly separating them from others, or quarantining them, for three weeks could cripple the fight against the outbreak in West Africa.
“If we don’t have our people volunteering to go over there, then you’re going to have other countries that are not going to do it and then the epidemic will continue to roar,” Fauci said.
Christie, traveling the country as head of the Republican Governors Association, said he was not worried that quarantining might discourage volunteers.
Earlier this month, four members of a family in Texas that Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan stayed with before he died were confined to their home under armed guard after failing to comply with a request not to leave their apartment. Also, 75 Dallas hospital workers were asked to sign legally binding documents in which they agreed not go to public places or use mass transit.
The New York-area quarantine measures were announced after Spencer returned to New York City from treating Ebola victims in Guinea for Doctors Without Borders and was admitted to Bellevue Hospital Center last Thursday to be treated for Ebola. In the week after his return, he rode the subway, went bowling and ate at a restaurant.
Hospital officials said Sunday that Spencer was in serious but stable condition.
Hickox, the quarantined nurse who just returned from Sierra Leone, said she had no symptoms at all and tested negative for Ebola in a preliminary evaluation.
“It’s just a slippery slope, not a sound public health decision,” she said of the quarantine policy. “I want to be treated with compassion and humanity, and don’t feel I’ve been treated that way.”
Hickox has access to a computer, her cellphone, magazines and newspapers and has been allowed to have takeout food, New Jersey Health Department officials said.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called Hickox a “returning hero” and charged that she was “treated with disrespect,” as if she done something wrong, when she was put into quarantine. He said that she was interrogated repeatedly and things were not explained well to her.
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who is on a trip to West Africa, said returning U.S. health care workers should be “treated like conquering heroes and not stigmatized for the tremendous work that they have done.”
In other developments, President Barack Obama met Sunday with his Ebola response team, including “Ebola czar” Ron Klain and other public health and national security officials. According to a statement released by the White House, Obama said any measures concerning returning health care workers “should be crafted so as not to unnecessarily discourage those workers from serving.”