Yes to Precautions, No to Panic

Health officials had been preparing for months for such a possibility, and experts had predicted that eventually an Ebola victim would be diagnosed in New York City. But when Dr. Craig Spencer, a physician who treated patients in Guinea, was diagnosed with the dreaded disease last Thursday, the news rattled residents of the Big Apple, and the governmental response has raised more questions than answers.

While the federal government agencies and the mayor of New York City have expressed reservations about calls for a strict quarantine for travelers returning from Ebola-ravaged West Africa, the governors of New York, New Jersey and Illinois have proceeded to put such mandatory quarantines in place, earning praise from the public and raising concerns in some circles about unintended consequences in fighting the disease.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie jointly announced that they were imposing a mandatory quarantine of 21 days — the incubation period of the deadly virus — on travelers who have had contact with Ebola patients in the countries ravaged by the disease: Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. A similar measure was announced in Illinois.

The governors raised very logical arguments as to why a mandatory quarantine is necessary.

Christie used the example of an NBC News crew that had returned from West Africa and was supposed to self-quarantine because its cameraman was hospitalized with Ebola. Two days later they were out picking up takeout food and walking around the streets of Princeton, New Jersey.

Cuomo pointed out that Dr. Spencer had taken the subway, gone bowling and visited a park and restaurant upon his return from Guinea, albeit before showing symptoms.

Defenders of the doctor responded by saying that neither the U.S. Centers for Disease Control nor Doctors Without Borders — the volunteer organization for which Spencer worked — ask health-care workers returning from the Ebola hot zone to quarantine themselves, only that they take their temperature, which Spencer did.

While this fact shows why criticism of Spencer may be unfair, it actually underscores why the steps taken by the three states are needed.

While being cooped up for three weeks is certainly a very serious inconvenience, it is a small price to pay to try to keep out of America an illness that has infected at least 10,000 people in Africa and killed about half that number.

The most cogent argument against the quarantine has been that it will dissuade doctors, nurses and other health-care workers from volunteering to go to Africa to fight the disease there.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warns that the best way to protect Americans is to stop the epidemic in Africa, and it is crucial for health-care workers to agree to go and fight it there.

Some have estimated that a three-week quarantine would eliminate two-thirds to three-quarters of the volunteers from the U.S. going to West Africa.

Yet it’s difficult to believe that men and women who are willing to risk their lives and travel to Ebola-infected areas can’t be convinced to make peace with the idea of a 21-day quarantine. If needed, the United States government can and should compensate these do-gooders for any financial losses and ensure that they don’t lose their jobs because of the quarantine (much as when members of juries are on occasion sequestered for weeks).

Fauci has also claimed that active and direct monitoring can accomplish the same thing as quarantine because people infected with Ebola do not become contagious until they start showing symptoms. Yet what happens if the individual starts exhibiting symptoms while sitting on a crowded subway or in a packed restaurant?

While the states’ plan appears to be proper, numerous valid questions have been raised about its details and implementation. What happens if an individual refuses to be quarantined? Do officials have the legal authority to confine him against his will?

The first health-care worker to be affected by the new rules and placed in quarantine on Friday after flying into Newark’s Liberty International Airport described the scene as “a frenzy of disorganization” and fear, and that no one appeared to be in charge.

While this is understandable for the first day of what was a considerable shift in protocol, it is imperative that the officials on the ground rapidly get their act together.

As important as it is to take all necessary steps to prevent Ebola from spreading in the United States, it is equally important to make sure that the public isn’t gripped by undue fear, which is counterproductive in all circumstances.

After a series of missteps at the federal level, President Obama sent a strong message by meeting in the Oval Office with a nurse who has been declared fully recovered after contracting the Ebola virus in a Dallas hospital. Mayor Bill de Blasio also deserves credit for his campaign calling for citywide calm, which included eating at a restaurant where Dr. Spencer ate before feeling ill.

While a frightening illness, Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with the bodily fluids — such as blood — of an infected person, and is far less contagious than a host of other very serious illnesses, such as bird flu.

Appropriate precautions should never be confused with panic, nor hishtadlus with results. As Torah Jews, we realize that while mortals are obligated to do all they can to guard their health, ultimately our fates lie solely in the hands of the Ribbono shel Olam, and that this is a time for tefillah as well as bitachon.