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Controversy Brews Over States' Moves To Quarantine Health Workers

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The weekend, the face of Ebola in America became nurse Kaci Hickox. After treating patients in West Africa, she returned to New Jersey last Friday, the same day the governors of New Jersey and New York announced a mandatory 21-day quarantine. It would apply to anyone arriving from an affected country who has had contact with an Ebola patient, which is why Kaci Hickox was detained at the airport and then transferred to an isolation tent next to a New Jersey hospital where she remained for the weekend. This morning, New Jersey officials announced they'll be releasing Hickox and transporting her to her home in Maine. Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," New Jersey's Governor Chris Christie defended his state's quarantine policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: I don't believe, when you're dealing with something as serious as this, that we can count on a voluntary system. This is government's job. If anything else, the government's job is to protect the safety and health of our citizens.

MONTAGNE: But Hickox, who tested negative for Ebola and reported all along that she had no symptoms, has described her treatment as inhumane. Here she is in a phone call to CNN yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KACI HICKOX: I just came back from one of the most difficult months of my life. And to make me stay for 21 days, to not be with my family, to put me through this emotional and physical stress is completely unacceptable.

MONTAGNE: New York Governor Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Christie face a barrage of criticism and White House pressure. Last night, they reiterated that the quarantine policy was in place, but noted that under certain circumstances quarantine could be spent at home. Joining us now is NPR global health and development correspondent Nurith Aizenman. Good morning.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So the release of Kaci Hickox this morning, that was a reversal in policy by the state of New Jersey.

AIZENMAN: Well, not exactly. They're not allowing her to remain in New Jersey. They're taking her straight home to Maine. And while New Jersey officials say they've alerted their counterparts in Maine, we haven't yet heard from Maine how they're going to handle this. And all along, governors Cuomo and Christie have said that for people who live in their states, those people could spend the quarantine at home. Last night, Governor Cuomo added the further detail that in some cases people in quarantine could still receive visitors. They wouldn't need to be in total seclusion.

MONTAGNE: And there's been some news out of another state, Virginia, this morning.

AIZENMAN: Right. So Virginia officials just announced that medical workers arriving in their state - that would be through Dulles Airport - who don't have symptoms but who were treating Ebola patients will be actively monitored for symptoms. They won't be under quarantine, but twice a day for 21 days after their arrival - that's the incubation period for Ebola - a state health official will visit to take the medical worker's temperature and check for symptoms.

Now, I should say this is in line with a series of tougher measures that federal officials announced last week. But - and it's certainly not going as far as a quarantine where you're telling people you have to remain either in a hospital or in your home for 21 days, and you can't go outside. You can't interact with anyone.

MONTAGNE: You know, it probably is, even though we've said it so many times before, important to stress that if someone is harboring the virus as long as they don't have symptoms - that would be fever, vomiting, diarrhea - they're not infectious. They can walk around. They can interact with people safely.

AIZENMAN: Yeah, and that appears to be what happened in the case of a New York City doctor, whose diagnosis with Ebola last week seems to have spurred this new policy by New Jersey and New York. His name is Craig Spencer, and he was checking his temperature continually. And reportedly, after he started feeling a bit fatigued but before he had a fever, he went bowling and to various places around the city. And officials have cleared all those places to reopen and stressed that he didn't put anyone he encountered there at risk. And the group that he was working with, the aid group Doctors Without Borders, said that Dr. Spencer followed the exact protocol that he needed to.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Nurith Aizenman. Thanks very much for joining us.

AIZENMAN: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.