NEW YORK (Reuters) - Illinois joined New York and New Jersey in imposing mandatory quarantines for people arriving with a risk of having contracted Ebola in West Africa, but the first person isolated under the new rules, a nurse returning from Sierra Leone, called her treatment a “frenzy of disorganization.”
Kaci Hickox, who arrived at Newark airport in New Jersey on Friday, described hours of questioning by officials in protective gear and what she said was a mis-diagnosis of fever, followed by a transfer to a hospital isolation tent.
Not long after Hickox’s criticisms were made public, it was announced that the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, is traveling to Guinea on Sunday. She will also visit Liberia and Sierra Leone, making the trip despite calls by some U.S. lawmakers for a travel ban on the three West African countries worst-affected by Ebola.
Power, a member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet, left Washington on Saturday.
Obama has resisted Republican calls for a travel ban on advice from health officials who say such a measure would be counter-productive, in part because it would impede people going to help fight the epidemic. Concern over Ebola has become a political issue ahead of Nov. 4 congressional elections.
Hickox, in an article published on Saturday by The Dallas Morning News on its website (bit.ly/1w4Vi4J), said she worried about what was in store for other American health workers trying to help combat the epidemic that has killed thousands in West Africa.
“I ... thought of many colleagues who will return home to America and face the same ordeal. Will they be made to feel like criminals and prisoners?” she wrote.
“I am scared that, like me, they will arrive and see a frenzy of disorganization, fear and, most frightening, quarantine,” wrote Hickox, who was working for the medical charity Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone.
Hickox’s quarantine came under a policy introduced by New York and New Jersey states on Friday, by which anyone arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport or Newark Liberty International Airport after having contact with patients in the Ebola-ravaged countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea must submit to a mandatory quarantine for 21 days. Three weeks is the longest documented period for an Ebola infection to emerge.
The quarantines were imposed after a New York City doctor was diagnosed with the disease on Thursday, days after returning home from working with patients in Guinea. Dr. Craig Spencer, who is being treated at Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan, was the fourth person to be diagnosed with the illness in the United States and the first in the country’s largest city.
Spencer’s case, and the fact he was out and about in the city in the period before his symptoms emerged, set off renewed worries in the United States about the spread of the disease.
Illinois will now also require a mandatory quarantine of anyone who has had direct contact with Ebola patients in those countries, Governor Pat Quinn said. His announcement did not explicitly discuss it, but the new measure was likely aimed at people arriving at Chicago O‘Hare International Airport.
The airport is one of five U.S. airports where health screening is in place for passengers whose journeys originated in the three countries that have borne the brunt of the worst Ebola outbreak on record. Such passengers are now obliged to route journeys into the United States through those five airports.
There was no word yet on whether such quarantines would be imposed in Virginia, where Washington Dulles International Airport is located, or in Georgia, where the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is located. The mandatory quarantines imposed by states exceed current federal guidelines, although the Obama administration is discussing similar measures.
Ebola, spread through direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person, is not transmitted by people who are not showing symptoms. But the state-imposed quarantines were prompted in part by the fact that Spencer traveled around the city between arriving home and developing symptoms on Thursday.
Hickox’s account of her treatment echoed concerns of critics of the mandatory quarantines who say they could discourage Americans from going to help control the epidemic.
Ebola has killed almost half of more than 10,000 people diagnosed with the disease - predominantly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea - although the true toll is far higher, according to the World Health Organization.
New Jersey’s health department said Hickox showed a fever soon after being quarantined at the airport and was taken to University Hospital in Newark. A preliminary test for Ebola was negative for the disease.
Hickox disputed that account in her article. She said her temperature was normal when tested orally at the hospital, but showed a fever when she was tested using a non-contact forehead scanner, reflecting the fact she was just flustered and anxious.
Doctors Without Borders also criticized Hickox’s treatment, saying she had been issued an order of quarantine but it was not clear how long she would be held in the tent set up as an isolation ward at Newark University Hospital.
“While she is being provided with food and water, the tent is not heated and she is dressed in uncomfortable paper scrubs. She was permitted to bring personal belongings into the tent,” the group said in a statement.
Dawn Thomas, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Health, was asked to confirm details of the nurse’s quarantine, including a report in the Wall Street Journal that the nurse’s mother and Doctors Without Borders said she was being held in an unheated tent with a portable toilet and air system but no shower, no books, magazines or television.
“The location is an extended care facility inside a building that is part of the hospital,” Thomas said in an email. “We understand that this is an inconvenience but our primary concern is the health of the patient.”
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was also asked by reporters about the nurse’s complaints during his visit on Saturday to Sioux City, Iowa, Thomas said.
Christie said his first obligation was the safety of the people of New Jersey, “so I’m sorry if in any way she was inconvenienced but inconvenience that could occur from having folks that are symptomatic and ill out amongst the public is a much, much greater concern of mine.”
The New York City doctor, Spencer, was admitted to hospital with a fever and has progressed to the next stage of the disease, with “gastrointestinal symptoms,” the New York Department of Health said on Saturday.
Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked by reporters if he thought Spencer had behaved irresponsibly by going out around town after getting home.
“I think that’s a really inappropriate characterization,” he said. “Here is a doctor who went into the medical equivalent of a war zone. This is no different than a soldier that goes into battle to protect us.”
Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg, Natasja Sheriff and Yasmeen Abutaleb in New York; Writing by Jonathan Allen and Edwin Chan; Editing by Frank McGurty and Frances Kerry