Politics

Obama Reduces Ebola Quarantine Protections

Neil Munro White House Correspondent

President Barack Obama has strong-armed New York’s Democratic governor and New Jersey’s Republican governor to weaken quarantines on the movement of people who have recently been in Ebola-stricken countries.

“We have let the governors of New York, New Jersey, and other states know that we have concerns with the unintended consequences of policies not grounded in science may have on efforts to combat Ebola at its sources in West Africa,” said a Sunday afternoon White House statement to reporters.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo buckled Sunday afternoon, and announced that travelers could serve their quarantine time at home. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, retreated late Sunday night, and approved home quarantines. In both states, the home quarantines will be monitored by state health officials.

Obama’s pressure began Friday once Cuomo and Christie jointly revived the practice of isolating and quarantining travelers who may be carrying a communicable disease. The practice was immediately applied to a nurse who had just returned from the Ebola-stricken area, and she was confined to a sealed room in a hospital.

The 21-day quarantine is long enough to reassure medical officials that the person is not infected.

The two governors moved to protect their state residents after a New York doctor was diagnosed with the lethal Ebola disease. The doctor had been out on the town in New York — taking the subway, going bowling — shortly before he was diagnosed.

The Democratic governors of Illinois and Florida later announced similar curbs.

Christie defended his retreat, by saying that he had intended to allow people to serve their quarantine at home.

“As I said on Friday, we & the @NJDeptofhealth will make those judgements were need be, what the most appropriate location for that is,” he said in a 10:55 p.m. tweet.

“New Jersey is not changing its quarantine protocol. The protocol is clear that a New Jersey resident with no symptoms … but who has come into contact with someone w/ Ebola, such as a health care provider, would be subject to a mandatory quarantine order … and a quarantined at home,” he tweeted.

That’s different from his Friday statement, which emphasized the enforced isolation of possible disease-carriers in hospitals.

“Each State Department of Health at JFK and Newark Liberty International Airports will, as permitted under applicable law, make its own determination as to hospitalization, quarantine, and other public health interventions for up to 21 days [and] there will also be a mandatory quarantine for any individual who had direct contact with an individual infected with the Ebola virus while in one of the three West African nations,” he said in a Friday statement.

Obama is taking a political risk by easing Ebola-related travel only one week before the midterm election.

Roughly two-thirds of Americans, and a growing share of GOP and Democratic legislators, favor travel curbs.

On Sunday Oct. 26, Obama increased his campaign against the quarantines, which were first enforced on a nurse who had just returned from aiding Ebola patients in West Africa.

Obama met with his health aides, and then released a White House statement designed to pressure the governors.

“The President underscored that the steps we take must be guided by the best medical science, as informed by our most knowledgeable public health experts,” said the statement.

In his Sunday statement, Obama “emphasized that these [anti-Ebola] measures must recognize that healthcare workers are an indispensable element of our effort to lead the international community to contain and ultimately end this outbreak at its source [in Africa], and should be crafted so as not to unnecessarily discourage those workers from serving,” the statement said.

Obama also “directed his team to formulate policies based on these principles.”

Officials have not announced the new rules, which may trump state authority to protect their own residents from epidemics.

Follow Neil on Twitter