The Obama administration is pushing back against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for requiring the mandatory quarantine of health care workers returning from West Africa where they had contact with Ebola virus patients, according to sources familiar with the situation.
The White House is developing new federal guidelines, a senior administration official said Sunday.
"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 source in West Africa," the official said. "We have also let these states know that we are working on new guidelines for returning health care workers that will protect the American people against imported cases, while, at the same time, enabling us to continue to tackle this epidemic in West Africa."
Both governors stood by their policy Sunday.
Under their requirements announced Friday, all travelers entering the country through Kennedy and Newark Liberty airports must submit to a mandatory 21-day quarantine if they have been in Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone and have had direct contact with Ebola patients, even if they have not shown infection symptoms. Illinois has a similar policy. Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Saturday ordered twice daily monitoring for anyone returning from places designated as affected by Ebola.
Kaci Hickox, a nurse who was the first traveler placed under the mandatory quarantine, Sunday retained well-known civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, who told Newsday that he and other lawyers are preparing to challenge the quarantine on her behalf in New Jersey court.
"The mandated quarantine policy enacted by both governors Christie and Cuomo is a serious violation of civil liberties issues," said Siegel of Manhattan. "It infringes on Kaci Hickox's civil liberties."
Hickox, 33, said Sunday that she feels her "basic human rights have been violated" and likened her isolation at University Hospital in Newark to prison.
Politicians differ on orders
Earlier Sunday, Cuomo said the quarantine order can be legally enforced.
"It's highly unlikely that a health professional wouldn't want to cooperate," but "you can enforce it legally," he said on COBA Radio's "Real Talk, Real Time" with Norman Seabrook, president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association.
Cuomo's Republican opponent, Rob Astorino, has called on Cuomo and Obama to prevent passengers from Ebola-stricken nations from entering Kennedy Airport. Sunday he called Cuomo's quarantine policy "an embarrassing failure of leadership at a time when the world is watching."
Christie Sunday told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday that "we needed to do this to protect the public health of the people of New Jersey. Governor Cuomo agreed and . . . I think the CDC eventually will come around to our point of view on this."
But a source familiar with the situation said President Barack Obama is "furious" with the governors' decision.
The Obama administration was angry that the governors made their announcement without consultation at a time when federal employees were handling the protocol at airports, the source said.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio last night called the treatment of Hickox "inappropriate" and likened nurses, doctors and other health care workers to "Marines" in the war on Ebola.
He did not criticize Cuomo's and Christie's decision, saying the city seeks "unity" and "will work" with the decision of the federal and state governments. He made the comments during a news conference about the condition of Dr. Craig Spencer, a Doctors Without Borders physician who is being treated for Ebola at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan after returning from work in Guinea.
Largest epidemic in history
Ebola is a rare and deadly disease caused by a virus that is believed to have originated in African bats. Symptoms can start with fever, muscle pain and weakness, and progress to bleeding, vomiting and severe diarrhea that can lead to organ failure and death. There have been dozens of small outbreaks since the illness was first identified in 1976, but the largest Ebola epidemic in history started this year in West Africa and so far has killed 4,922 people there.
Hickox treated Ebola patients in Sierra Leone but has shown no symptoms of infection and has twice tested negative for the disease.
"This is an extreme that is really unacceptable, and I feel like my basic human rights have been violated," Hickox, a Fort Kent, Maine, resident, said in a phone interview with CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Sunday said he would not have recommended the states' quarantine policy had he been consulted.
Speaking to NBC's "Meet the Press," Fauci said the policy's "unintended consequences" may be discouraging health workers from aiding patients in West Africa, where the epidemic must be curbed to protect the United States. He urged government officials to "go with the science" because only symptomatic patients can spread the virus.
"The best way to stop this epidemic is to help the people in West Africa," Fauci said. "We need to treat returning people with respect."
Experts oppose policy
One of the largest U.S. organizations of hospital infection control experts announced last night that it is opposed to mandatory quarantines for health care personnel returning from Ebola-endemic countries. The Association for Professionals joined other medical and public health organizations that have gone on record against rigorous periods of confinement.
"It is important to be guided by the scientific evidence and apply the lessons learned so far," association officials said in a statement. To illustrate that Ebola is not easily transmitted the association pointed to family members of Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian national who died of the disease earlier this month in Dallas. Despite close contact while Duncan showed symptoms, they did not contract the infection.
Other major organizations and agencies opposed to mandatory quarantines include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and Doctors Without Borders.
With Michael Gormley, Ridgely Ochs, David Schwartz and Delthia Ricks