New York & New Jersey Issue Mandatory Quarantine For People Returning From West Africa

Following confirmation that Manhattan physician Craig Spencer has tested positive for the Ebola virus, state officials in New York and New Jersey have issued a mandatory quarantine for anyone returning from West Africa who treated or came into contact with a stricken patient. Those deemed "high risk" will be kept at a government-regulated facility where they can be closely monitored. These new measures go beyond the guidelines instituted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which suggest only a voluntary quarantine of three weeks. But with new fears of the disease spreading rapidly throughout the most populous city in America, New Jersey and New York opted to take further precautions.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told the New York Times, "A voluntary Ebola quarantine is not enough. This is too serious a public health issue." Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey echoed these statements, saying, "We are no longer relying on C.D.C. standards" that call for individuals returning from West Africa to simply monitor their own health and report any suspicious irregularities to local healthcare providers. Christie also noted, "Voluntary quarantine — raise your right hand and promise you’re going to stay home for 21 days. We’ve seen what happens," likely referring to Dr. Nancy Snyderman of NBC News, who broke her voluntary quarantine period just a few days after returning to the United States in order to make a restaurant run.

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As a result of this new mandatory quarantine, one individual in New York has already been ordered to keep away from the public for 21 days — thus far, he has not exhibited any symptoms of the disease. New York and New Jersey represent the first two states in the union to put such restrictions in place, and Governor Cuomo said on Friday afternoon that he felt these extra precautions were necessary for the safety of New York residents. Speaking to CBS News, Cuomo noted,

We believe it’s appropriate to increase the current screening procedures from people coming from affected countries from the current (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention screening procedures). We believe it within the State of New York and the State of New Jersey’s legal rights.

These new mandatory measures may assuage some New York and New Jersey residents' fears about catching the disease, especially after reports emerged about Spencer's activity in the days immediately before his diagnosis. The 33-year-old reported visiting the High Line park, taking the subway, eating at a restaurant and visiting a bowling alley in the two days before he began showing symptoms. Officials have corrected earlier reports that Spencer had a 103 degree fever when he was taken to Bellevue Hospital, stating instead that he had a fever of 100.3 degrees, which means that it is much less likely that he would've passed on the virus to anyone else.

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Despite numerous statements from New York City, state, and surrounding area officials assuring concerned residents that it would be very difficult for them to catch the disease, this has done little to allay concerns about the danger posed by the virus. Many New Yorkers were particularly worried about the possibility of the Ebola virus living in a subway car Spencer rode on Wednesday evening while traveling between Manhattan and Williamsburg. But experts have told the Times that the likelihood of transmitting the virus by way of a subway vector is "close to zero." Not only was Spencer asymptomatic at the time of the trip, but officials also say that the "virus is not expected to live more than two to four hours on a surface," which means that it would be very unlikely for any other rider to be infected.

The trains in New York City have remained in service to prevent causing any unnecessary panic. Three people who have come into close contact with Spencer have been quarantined thus far, and disease detectives remain on the lookout for any other individuals who may have come into risk in the two days before Spencer was taken to the hospital.

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While some may be pleased by the increased safety measures now being put in place, others are more skeptical about their usefulness and necessity. Some healthcare workers say that this mandatory quarantine policy simply goes too far. In a recent statement, Doctors Without Borders, the group with which Spencer was working when he was infected, emphasized that Ebola does not spread until patients begin to show symptoms, and transmission of the disease happens through close contact with bodily fluids.

Said the group, "As long as a returned staff member does not experience any symptoms, normal life can proceed." Others are concerned that these new policies will dissuade potential aid workers from helping across seas, as they will be placed on lockdown for three weeks upon their return. Dr. Rick Sacra, one of the Americans who successfully recovered from the virus, told the Associated Press, "A three-week complete quarantine would eliminate two-thirds to three-quarters of the volunteers from the US. They wouldn't be able to spare the time."

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Bruce Johnson, president of SIM USA, the organization with which Nancy Writebol, another American patient, was affiliated, made similar claims, saying that healthcare professionals would think, "I want to go over and help for a month, but now you're telling me that when I get back I can't go to work for 21 days?" This, Johnson said, would "dampen the generous spirit of people in the US who want to go help."

Disheartening or not, the guidelines in New York and New Jersey have been instated to keep residents safe, and until healthcare professionals exhibit some level of control over the virus, it seems that the mandatory quarantine is here to stay.

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