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Little Progress on Clarifying Ebola Quarantine Policies

Little Progress on Clarifying Ebola Quarantine Policies

By Alexis Simendinger - October 28, 2014

Federal clarity about Ebola quarantine policy eluded President Obama on Tuesday, as he sought in a hastily arranged statement to both reassure Americans and postpone answers about why the Pentagon, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as key states apply different limitations on the movement of those entering the United States from West African epicenters of the virus.

As he departed the White House for Milwaukee to begin his maiden campaign swing with candidates one week before Election Day, Obama told reporters he’d elaborate Wednesday.

The president touted the virtues of medical science and “smart decisions,” appearing to implicitly rebuke New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who imposed a mandatory 21-day quarantine in health facilities on health care workers returning from West Africa through his state. Christie relaxed that decision in order to release Doctors Without Borders nurse Kaci Hickox, who had been confined in a hospital over the weekend without symptoms of illness before being transferred to her home in Maine on Monday.

Christie, campaigning through Florida and Maryland this week, said he did not back down, adding that CDC quarantine guidelines are “wrong.”  

Obama announced his intention to meet doctors and public health workers on their way to West Africa and others returning from battling Ebola as a way to underscore “how our policies can support the incredible heroism that they are showing.”

The president appeared to embrace the U.S. Army’s order to quarantine personnel returning from Africa, even though those personnel did not provide Ebola patient care, and despite the clash with CDC guidelines.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is weighing a recommendation from the Joint Chiefs of Staff for “a regimented program of 21 days of controlled, supervised monitoring for all troops returning from Ebola response efforts in West Africa,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Tuesday. Hagel backs the Army’s quarantine decision, which was announced Monday.

Obama has committed up to 4,000 U.S. troops to West Africa to erect 17 field hospitals and coordinate responses in the region. The president endorsed separate Pentagon Ebola standards, even if troops returning to the United States provided no direct patient care and had no contact with Ebola-infected body fluids.

“The military is in a different situation, obviously, because they are, first of all, not treating patients. Second of all, they are not there voluntarily,” he told reporters.  “We don’t expect to have similar rules for our military as we do for our civilians.”

Obama said he’d have a better explanation Wednesday. “I’ll have more about -- more to say about this tomorrow.”

The CDC says quarantining or impeding the free movement of returning health workers who have a low or negligible risk of Ebola exposure and no symptoms of illness is not advised because it is unnecessary, burdensome and could discourage caregivers from volunteering in West Africa, where their skills are in desperate need.

Health care workers and humanitarian volunteers have warned they would face hurdles with leave time and compensation from their jobs if they had to account for three weeks of mandatory hospital isolation when they return to the United States after serving in Africa.

Amended CDC guidelines say health monitoring should be tailored to the individual exposure risks and circumstances of each returning caregiver. Many of those workers, including Hickox, complain that stigmatizing them and substituting political fears for scientific facts hinder the call-to-medical-arms seen as critical in West Africa, thus increasing the chances that the Ebola outbreak spreads on the African continent and globally.

“We don’t want to discourage our health care workers from going to the front lines and dealing with this in an effective way,” Obama said.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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