WASHINGTON -- The top government infectious disease specialist warned politicians against Ebola quarantines on Sunday, saying aggressive protocols targeting all health workers who fight the disease are not backed up by good science and could ultimately threaten public health in the United States.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, made several TV appearances Sunday to note that harsh treatment of health workers returning from Africa could backfire, jeopardizing Americans.
"If you put everyone in one basket, even people who are clearly no threat, then we have the problem of the disincentive of people that we need," Fauci told ABC. "Let’s not forget the best way to stop this epidemic and protect America is to stop it in Africa, and you can really help stopping it in Africa if we have our people, our heroes, the health care workers, go there and help us to protect America."
The states of New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Florida over the weekend implemented an abrupt 21-day quarantine of health workers who fly into certain airports after treating Ebola patients in Africa. Kaci Hickox, a nurse who had volunteered to treat Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, sharply criticized her recent homecoming reception in an op-ed for the Dallas Morning News. Hickox said she was treated like a "criminal" and detained for several hours in "a frenzy of disorganization" and "fear." Hickox tested negative for Ebola once she was allowed to leave the airport for a hospital, where she is now being quarantined.
"The evidence tells us that people who are not ill, who don't have symptoms, who -- with whom you don't come into contact with body fluids -- they are not a threat, they are not going to spread it," Fauci told ABC. "We have to be careful when we make policy, that we don't have unintended consequences .... I'm concerned of the disincentive for the health care workers. And it's interesting. I think people lose that the best way to protect us is to stop it in Africa."
Ebola can only be transmitted by direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone who is showing symptoms of the disease. Experts say that monitoring those who have returned from West Africa and appear healthy through routine tests like taking one's temperature can prevent even infected people from spreading the disease without discouraging future volunteers. Only four Ebola cases have occurred in the United States since the outbreak in West Africa. Fauci treated one of them, Dallas nurse Nina Pham, who has now recovered.
Another U.S. Ebola patient, Dr. Craig Spencer, tested positive for the disease a few days after returning from treating patients in Guinea. Because he had monitored himself regularly and went to the hospital after registering a fever of 100.3 degrees, it is very unlikely that he transmitted the disease to anyone else. He is now being quarantined, however, while he fights active symptoms.
Fauci's comments were echoed by Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
"All of us need to make clear what these health workers mean to us and how much we value their services, how much we value their contribution," Power said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "We need to make sure they are treated like conquering heroes."
"I sat alone in the isolation tent and thought of many colleagues who will return home to America and face the same ordeal," Hickox wrote in her op-ed. "Will they be made to feel like criminals and prisoners?"