Editorial: Ebola policy-making is too haphazard

Happily for her, nurse Kaci Hickox was released Monday from what looked like house arrest in an unheated tent in New Jersey and escorted by SUV to her home in Maine.

Her offense was to return to America from Sierra Leone just as our political leaders lost their way in a sea of befuddlement — imposing broad rules on the spot to make sure that caregivers returning from Ebola’s hot zones in West Africa weren’t infectious. The result was unfortunate.

Hickox landed at Newark Liberty Airport on Friday as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were delivering their own fiat that, contrary to federal guidelines, they would quarantine caregivers who came in through Newark or Kennedy airports.

Hickox was quickly surrounded by local authorities who thought she had a temperature, a symptom of Ebola, and was detained. Her quarantine set off two days of furious wrangling between states, including New York and New Jersey, that wanted stronger quarantine standards and a White House still working on new regulations.

The stance of Cuomo and Christie represents one side of the debate: to make sure the public remains calm about the spread of the disease. Meanwhile, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wants a softer line that reflects the unlikely chance of Ebola spreading and a respect for the workers who selflessly volunteer their time. All the same, the states have primary responsibility for setting the guidelines.

By the end of the day, the Pentagon decided to take the safer route. A general and other soldiers setting up field hospitals in the diseased-ravaged countries are being quarantined for 21 days on a U.S. base in Vicenza, Italy. They will not be able to return home and will interact only with personnel in the quarantine area.

So how do these competing concerns get balanced?

The truth is, we were caught outrageously unprepared from the White House on down.

It can’t happen again.