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Expert Voices

Don't Quarantine American Health Workers (Op-Ed)

nurses, patient care, rapid response team, heart attack
The implementation of a rapid response system empower the bedside nurse.
(Image: © COD Newsroom/Flickr, CC BY)

Jeff Nesbit was the director of public affairs for two prominent federal science agencies. This article was adapted from one that first appeared in U.S. News & World Report. Nesbit contributed the article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

This isn't complicated. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie — and six other American governors — are just plain wrong. This country's leaders shouldn't be placing Americans in quarantine "for the greater good" of the general population simply because we're afraid of Ebola.

Christie doubled down Tuesday on his decision to place a nurse in quarantine in Newark, simply because she'd cared for Ebola patients in West Africa and had complained of a fever on coming back to the United States. [2014 Ebola Outbreak (Infographic )]

Christie received considerable criticism for his decision before ultimately relenting and allowing Maine nurse Kaci Hickox to leave her quarantine tent and return home. Nevertheless he defended his decision, and said he'd do it again in the future — and he basically dared her to sue him for quarantining her, even after she tested negative for Ebola.

"Whatever. Get in line," Christie said during a campaign stop in Rhode Island. "I've been sued lots of times before. Get in line. I'm happy to take it on."

Christie also defended his right to quarantine people returning to New Jersey from Africa, despite widespread criticism from the public health community that quarantine for doctors and nurses  who are not sick is medically unnecessary, and could harm efforts to deal with the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

Christie called this criticism from the public health community "malarkey" and defended his decision to quarantine Hickox.

"She was inside the hospital in a climate-controlled area with access to her cell phone, access to the Internet and takeout food from the best restaurants in Newark," he said. "She was doing just fine."

Which is beside the point. We just don't quarantine Americans without a really good reason — and Christie doesn't have one.

But six other American governors, in one degree or another, agree with Christie and have now instituted some form of quarantine process for Americans and health care workers who return to the United States from the three nations where the Ebola outbreak is being managed.

They're wrong.

It takes a pretty substantial amount of evidence to deny Americans their constitutionally protected rights. It's very difficult to see why a health care worker should be denied personal freedom simply because they were delivering care to Ebola victims outside the United States .

But, more importantly, what these governors are doing — by politicizing a scary public health situation — is discouraging American health care workers who wish to volunteer in Africa. It takes a great deal of courage in the first place to step into those Ebola tents — only to face quarantine when you get back to the United States? It's shortsighted, and wrong.

President Barack Obama has instructed his Ebola team, coordinated by Ron Klain, Vice President Joe Biden's former chief of staff, to ensure that any measures involving health care workers need to be managed so that they don't unnecessarily discourage people from responding to the outbreak.

Doctors Without Borders said Monday that some medical workers are already reducing their time in the field to avoid potential quarantines. Hickox, the nurse who started the quarantine fight with Christie, is a Doctors Without Borders volunteer.

"The best way to protect us is to stop the epidemic in Africa , and we need those health care workers, so we don not want them in a position where it makes it very, very uncomfortable for them to even volunteer to go," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

In his first public comments on states' quarantine efforts, Obama warned on Tuesday that the strict rules could undermine American efforts to halt the virus.

"[Ebola] can be contained — it will be defeated," he told reporters at a press briefing. "[But] we don't want to discourage our health care workers from gong to the frontlines. They are doing God's work over there, and they are doing it to keep us safe."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has set out national guidelines, which Obama said he hoped states would heed. "We don't just react based on our fears," Obama said. "We react based on facts and judgment and making smart decisions."

He's right. But this won't be the first time — or the last — that politics trump rational measures in the face of public scares. 

This Op-Ed was adapted from one that first appeared in Nesbit's column At the Edge in U.S. News & World Report. Nesbit's most recent Op-Ed was "Is Marijuana Harmful?." Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.