The Ebola rebellion

On Friday, New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, and New York’s Democrat governor, Andrew Cuomo, jointly announced that they would impose mandatory quarantine procedures for health care workers returning to the United States after working with Ebola patients in Africa.  This was, obviously, a reaction to the story of “Bowling for Ebola” doctor Craig Spencer, who ended his “self-isolation” period with a night on the town, while he was merely feeling “sluggish,” and then presented full-blown Ebola symptoms on the following day.  There was a great deal of public concern that isolation for people exposed to the deadly disease was too important to be left to individual discretion and self-monitoring, concern that has been growing ever since the Texas Ebola drama included unnecessary travel by the infected nurses.  If the call for mandatory quarantine was a powerful swing of the pendulum back toward caution, perhaps even excessive caution, it’s only because that pendulum had swung so far toward recklessness.  Public health authorities and government officials have been wrong so many times about Ebola, so why not err on the side of caution?

The White House evidently didn’t like being made to look bad by a couple of state governors, so they went to work on Cuomo, and within 48 hours he had backed out of the Ebola Rebellion, declaring that self-isolation at home was just peachy after all.  Christie largely followed suit once Cuomo folded his cards.  The big change is that home-isolated persons will be independently monitored

The New York Times reports on the weekend chaos, which is not going to do much to reassure Americans that their immense multi-layered government has got this Ebola thing under control:

Facing fierce resistance from the White House and medical experts to a strict new mandatory quarantine policy, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Sunday night that medical workers who had contact with Ebola patients in West Africa but did not show symptoms of the disease would be allowed to remain at home and would receive compensation for lost income.

Mr. Cuomo???s decision capped a frenzied weekend of behind-the-scenes pleas from administration officials, who urged him and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey to reconsider the mandatory quarantine they had announced on Friday. Aides to President Obama also asked other governors and mayors to follow a policy based on science, seeking to stem a steady movement toward more stringent measures in recent days at the state level.

The announcement by Mr. Cuomo seemed intended to draw a sharp contrast ??? both in tone and in fact ??? to the policy???s implementation in New Jersey, where a nurse from Maine who arrived on Friday from Sierra Leone was swiftly quarantined in a tent set up inside a Newark hospital, with a portable toilet but with no shower.

It was the second striking shift in Mr. Cuomo???s public posture on the Ebola crisis in 72 hours; after urging calm on Thursday night, then joining Mr. Christie to highlight the risks of lax policy on Friday, Mr. Cuomo on Sunday night appeared to try to dial back his rhetoric and stake out a middle ground.

He said his decision balanced public safety with the need to avoid deterring medical professionals from volunteering in West Africa. ???My No. 1 job is to protect the people of New York, and this does that,??? he said. Those quarantined at home will be visited twice a day by local authorities, he said. Family members will be allowed to stay, and friends may visit with the approval of health officials.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, sitting beside Mr. Cuomo at a news conference in Manhattan, nodded in approval, and praised the governor for developing a set of flexible quarantine guidelines that, the mayor said, would show proper respect to those required to abide by them.

After Mr. Cuomo???s announcement, Mr. Christie issued a statement saying that, under protocols announced on Wednesday, New Jersey residents not displaying symptoms would also be allowed to quarantine in their homes.

Later in the article we learn that both governors deny feeling any backstage pressure from the White House, even though everyone else seems to acknowledge such pressure was applied.  Did neither of the governors game the politics of this move out?  How could they not have realized they’d come under intense pressure from Washington for contradicting the Administration’s preferred Ebola narratives?  Later in the article, the Times reports that “City officials, who were not consulted on the two governors’ decision, learned of it as the public did,” leading to a comical “room-to-room scramble” at City Hall.  I assume they’re referring to New York City.  That’s quite a testament to Cuomo’s brilliant leadership!

The quarantined, but not currently symptomatic, nurse mentioned above is named Kaci Hickox, and she did much care for mandatory quarantine.  She railed against the policy on TV news cameras, and as the New York Post reports, her lawyers are even threatening to sue the state of New Jersey:

An Ebola nurse under mandatory quarantine in New Jersey fumed Sunday that she is being held in ???inhumane??? and ???prison???-like conditions ??? and her lawyer vowed to file suit over her involuntary confinement.

Kaci Hickox told CNN???s ???State of the Union??? that she was stuck inside a tent without a shower or flushable toilet, despite having no symptoms and twice testing negative for the deadly virus after caring for patients in Sierra Leone.

Hickox, 33, also said she was being forced to wear paper scrubs, had no TV or reading materials, and was spending her time staring at the walls of the tent outside University Hospital in Newark,

???I am sure that we, as the United States, can come up with a fair and just policy for returning aid workers from Ebola-affected areas,??? she said in an e-mail to The Post.

???But the policy enacted on me was no such policy. We must fix this now in order to ensure aid workers are protected so that this battle against Ebola in West Africa is won.???

Hickox, who was quarantined Friday, also told CNN she hasn???t been told how long she???ll be locked up, and started to cry when she described having no temperature or other symptoms of Ebola.

Hickox said she felt ???like my basic human rights have been violated,??? adding: ???To put me in prison is just inhumane.???

She topped off her email to the New York Post with a selfie taken from inside her quarantine tent, because of course she did.

At the end of its article, the Post notes that the hospital claims Hickox “has computer access, use of her cellphone, reading material, and has requested and received food and drink,” which would suggest the nurse is dramatically exaggerating the hardships of her quarantine, unless the hospital is not telling the truth.  (She obviously does have her smartphone, because she took a selfie with it.  Smartphones provide access to the Internet and abundant reading material and other entertainment, as anyone killing time in an airport or doctor’s office could testify.)  By Monday morning, Governor Christie had announced that Hickox would be discharged from the hospital.

This all seems like it was conceived and handled in the worst possible way, by everyone from the governors to the Administration.  The whole Ebola Rebellion seems to have been cooked up in a mad dash to restore public confidence after Dr. Spencer’s Excellent Ebola Adventure by Governors Christie and Cuomo, who didn’t do much planning beyond checking with some lawyers to see if they had the power to impose such restrictions.  Their subsequent handling of Kaci Hickox was pretty much guaranteed to produce a media-magnet sympathetic critic.

On the other hand, people with legitimate concerns about an outbreak are once again grinding their teeth as they watch the government and media put several agenda items higher on their list of priorities than “protecting the public from Ebola.”  The reason medical authorities are blasting the New York and New Jersey quarantine protocol as “counter-productive” is that it will supposedly make American health care workers unwilling to travel to Africa to fight the disease, knowing of the hell they will face upon returning.  Many observers will find themselves questioning the dedication of doctors and nurses who can handle hand-to-hand combat with Ebola in Africa,  but not 21 days of isolation upon returning.

Surely a compromise for mandatory isolation can be reached, with more comfortable facilities made available to screened, non-symptomatic returning workers.  The federal government rented out some fairly expensive facilities to house the illegal aliens who flooded across the southern border after President Obama’s executive orders for amnesty.  How much would it cost to put together a decent halfway house for returning Ebola doctors, instead of giving them the treatment that made Hickox so upset?  Even on short notice, state governments in New Jersey and New York should have been able to arrange something better than what she got.

The public strongly favors mandatory isolation of some kind for medical personnel returning from the Ebola hot zone.  The Today show on NBC just did a flash poll that found 94 percent support for such isolation.  Christie and Cuomo were probably looking at such measurements of public opinion when they announced their protocols on Friday.  I suspect an equally heavy majority would disapprove of subjecting the quarantined individuals to pointless discomfort, and they’re probably not going to approve of an “emergency Ebola protocol” that turned into a public-relations meltdown.

Governor Christie appeared on Fox News Sunday to defend his quarantine policy, and made some interesting points about how he and Cuomo, as governors of states containing densely populated cities, thought it was necessary to ensure compliance with a mandatory isolation procedures.  “I don’t believe, when you’re dealing with something as serious as this, that we can count on a voluntary system,” he said.  “This is government’s job.  If anything else, the government’s job is to protect the safety and the health of our citizens.”

Considering how much compulsive force federal and state governments have been willing to direct at much larger groups of Americans over far more trivial matters, imposing on a relatively tiny group of Ebola doctors and nurses for a few weeks doesn’t seem unreasonable.  Unfortunately, the way Christie and Cuomo handled this made it seem unreasonable, and ill-considered, at least to the media and political elite… and by caving in over the weekend, they made themselves look less serious.  The Beltway-media action line today is that the governors of New Jersey and New York overreacted and over-reached.  I wonder if a great many ordinary people watching the show are scratching their heads and wondering why it’s so outrageous to ask people exposed to Ebola in Africa to chill out in mandatory, monitored isolation for a few weeks until it’s absolutely certain they are not infected.  The elite is basically telling us we have to tolerate unnecessary levels of modest risk to demonstrate our fealty to Science.

Update: In a campaign appearance with Florida Governor Rick Scott, Governor Christie pushed back against critics of his Ebola policy, including quarantined nurse Kaci Hickox.  “The fact of the matter is we???re going to protect the people of our state,” Christie told reporters.  “And I think you saw yesterday that there???s confirmation that she???s being treated quite well in New Jersey. The CDC has been overseeing all the treatment that she has gotten in New Jersey and I???m hopeful that this morning if all goes well that we???ll be able to release her and send her back to Maine where she can continue to be quarantined in her home.”

“But the fact is I???m not going to step away for a minute from protecting the people of my state and our region,” Christie continued, before slipping in a little dig at Hickox’s complaints to the media.  “So I understand that she didn???t want to be there. She made that very clear from the beginning but my obligation is to all the people of New Jersey and we???re just going to continue to do that. So the critics are the critics no matter what you do there will be critics and you don???t worry that, you worry about doing what???s right for the people you represent and that???s what we???ve done.”  He even suggested that the nurse might come around to his way of thinking “when she has time to reflect.”

Whatever else you can say about Chris Christie, pro and con, he doesn’t hide under his desk when he takes heat from someone who has “sympathetic victim” credibility in the media.