When Governor Christie of New Jersey, Governor Cuomo of New York, and Governor Quinn of Illinois signed executive orders mandating that Ebola heath care workers returning from Africa through airports in their three states would be subjected to a strict quarantine for 21 day, they were guilty of political knee jerk reactions. After Dr. Craig Spence was diagnosed with the disease after returning to New York City, the three governors rushed to assume the roll of “protectors of the people”. They obviously didn’t consult with medical experts and generally didn’t think through the consequences of their actions.
I don’t know how these governors expected the people that they targeted to react, but I don’t think they were counting on catching on someone like Nurse Kaci Hickox in their quarantine net. She was not a happy camper; I don’t think any of us would have been in her situation. The real game changer was that she is highly articulate and was more than willing to present her case to the public.
Kaci had just spent what she said was “the worst month of my life” volunteering her skills to care for Ebola patients under very primitive conditions in Africa and trying to keep disease from spreading elsewhere in the world. When she landed at the Newark Airport she had probably been in the air or in the airports for well over 24 hours. (I traveled back from Italy a few weeks back and after 23 hours in the air or airports I dead tired when I got home.) She was not symptomatic at the airport, but instead of having her temperature checked and being allowed to travel home to Maine, she was retained there and questioned for five to six hours. Then she was transported to a tent outside of a hospital which lacked a shower and regular toilet facilities where she expected to be held as a prisoner for 21 days. I’m sure it wasn’t her idea of the hero’s welcome that many people believed she deserved on returning home. If Chris Christi expected her to endure this mistreatment silently, he miscalculated badly. She came out swinging.
In long telephone interviews with Candy Crowley and Elizabeth Cohen of CNN, Kaci blasted Christi and the other two governors who put the quarantine orders in place for what she said was political reasons not based on sound medical knowledge of Ebola. She argued that her mistreatment would discourage other medical professionals from traveling to Africa to stop the epidemic at its source before it can spread to this country. She said that the policy was very poorly thought out. She pointed out that New Jersey state officials at the airport seem to have no idea what they were doing and that health care workers treating Ebola patients in the US were not subjected similar quarantines. She then raked Christi over the coals for saying on TV that she “was obviously not well” when if fact she was not sick at all. She went on to point out that she had far greater knowledge about the virus than Christi and basically made him look like a stupid politician trying to use the public’s fear to make political points (my characterization, not hers). She was extremely articulate – if I were Christi I wouldn’t want to debate her on the subject of Ebola or proper medical protocols.
After Kaci’s interviews, numerous Ebola experts came out with statements defending Kaci and condemning the quarantine policies. Other politicians spoke up as well saying that Kaci had been mistreated and that is unacceptable. It was reported that the White House was also pressuring the governors to rethink their strategies. You could feel the momentum began to turn.
Right after the first of Kaci’s interviews the governors and their political handlers apparently realized that their quarantine orders were not going to be politically popular after all. Almost immediately Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York starting backing away from his early statements faster than a startled crawfish in a Louisiana swamp. He “clarified” that healthcare workers returning from Africa to New York just needed to stay at home with no limitation on visitors. Chris Christi, who earlier bragged that his quarantine policy would become the model for the entire nation, also made a one eighty and allowed Kaci to return to her home state of Maine by private transportation. (Maine does not have a quarantine policy.) Maybe Christi can again blame this major political misstep on someone in his administration.
What is amazing to me is that one woman standing up for her rights and insisting that medical situations be handled based medical knowledge rather than political grandstanding, was able to back down two of the most well known politicians in this country. Hers was a victory of knowledge and logic over fear. There may be hope for our political process yet. I have one thing to say to Kaci Hickox – “Way to go girl! Run for office; I’ll vote for you.”