Zaino: Mandatory Ebola quarantine not the answer

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Thursday unveiled the state's plan to address any potential threats of an Ebola outbreak, noting that eight hospitals in the state are prepared to treat any infected patients.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Thursday unveiled the state’s plan to address any potential threats of an Ebola outbreak, noting that eight hospitals in the state are prepared to treat any infected patients. Photo Credit: William Bush

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his New Jersey counterpart, Chris Christie, have adopted one of the toughest policies in the nation to combat the spread of Ebola.

A day after physician Craig Spencer became New York City’s first diagnosed Ebola case last week, the governors decided that medical personnel who helped Ebola patients in West Africa and are returning to the United States through New York and New Jersey must undergo a mandatory 21-day quarantine in a hospital. They called the step necessary. (Two other states, Illinois and Florida, have instituted similar policies.)

The mandatory quarantine, however, is in stark contrast to the advice of most medical professionals and experts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization, among others.

In a statement to The Associated Press, Doctors Without Borders reiterated that “Self-quarantine is neither warranted nor recommended when a person is not displaying Ebola-like symptoms.” On Sunday, the White House began pushing Cuomo and Christie to reverse the policy, noting that according to medical experts it is neither needed nor likely to be effective. In response, late Sunday Cuomo backtracked somewhat, announcing that personnel who are asymptomatic will be allowed to self-quarantine at home and receive compensation for lost income.

What is striking about Cuomo’s initial decision and his subsequent revised policy, is that they come just days after he responded to a question about fracking during a gubernatorial debate by saying, “I’m not a scientist. Let the scientists decide. It’s very complicated, very controversial, academic studies come out all different ways. Let the experts decide.”

Which begs the question: Why trust the experts when it comes to fracking, but not when it comes to Ebola? How does Cuomo square his determination to defer to the scientists on one potentially critical public health issue, but not the other?

One key difference is the polls. Whereas hydraulic fracturing (fracking) remains a divisive issue, particularly unpopular with many on the governor’s left, that is not the case with an Ebola quarantine, at least not yet. A Quinnipiac University poll released in late summer showed that almost half of New Yorkers (48 percent) oppose fracking. This marked the highest level of opposition since March 2013. Moreover, 41 percent of those polled said Cuomo was “dragging his feet” on the issue to avoid making an unpopular decision before the Nov. 4 election.

Polls on Ebola tell a far different story. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that almost two-thirds of respondents are worried about a widespread Ebola outbreak in the United States. Moreover, 9 out of 10 Americans (91 percent) believe that there should be tougher screening of people coming into the United States from West African nations and two-thirds support travel restrictions — or a travel ban — for people coming from those countries where the outbreak has been the most severe.

It is common for the public to favor a policy action that on its face seems like it will be effective, but which experts warn us against and suggest may prove to be counterproductive. In these instances, the polls are driven by fear and it is incumbent on elected officials to weigh the evidence and make the best decision possible — not the most politically expedient decision, but the one that is in the best interest of our health and safety.

Is a quarantine the best way to address the Ebola crisis? As Cuomo said in another context, “I’m not a scientist. Let the scientists decide.” Except that scientists have already said it is not the best way to go. So, why is Cuomo bucking their advice on this issue, but not when it comes to fracking? If the answer has to do with something other than electoral politics, he should let us know.

Jeanne Zaino is professor of political science at Iona College and of political campaign management at New York University.