On Monday, a day after he told Fox News he had “no second thoughts” about his decision to forcibly quarantine a nurse who had just returned from West Africa, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie reversed course and announced that he was allowing Kaci Hickox to return to her home in Maine. Hickox had recently returned from a trip in Sierra Leone where she had been treating Ebola patients. She was forced to be contained in a tent outside a New Jersey hospital for the past three days after a forehead thermometer reading showed a temperature of 101.
Since then, Hickox has shown no symptoms of Ebola. A later temperature reading from a more reliable oral thermometer showed a reading of 98.6. She claimed that the forehead reading came after she was questioned from hours after a long plane ride, leading her to be frustrated and flushed. The tent she’s been forced to reside in has no shower, a small portable toilet and no television or heat. Hickox retained a lawyer to challenge the state’s treatment of her and the ACLU also stepped up and questioned whether or not Christie had the legal authority to impose such a restriction. The nurse also wrote a scathing op-ed about her confinement that appeared in a Dallas newspaper.
Christie appeared on Fox News Sunday and told host Chris Wallace that he felt mandatory 21-day quarantines were necessary for those who may have been exposed to Ebola, even if the people weren’t symptomatic. He also brushed off criticism from health experts.
WALLACE: Governor, you just heard and we want to talk — before politics to this whole controversy about Ebola and quarantine, you just heard Dr. Fauci, New York City’s health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, says reportedly she was furious that she was not informed before the quarantine was imposed. Do you no longer trust the CDC and, doctors and scientists?
CHRISTIE: Well, no, that’s pretty general statement, Chris. Of course we do. The fact of the matter is CDC protocols as Dr. Fauci admitted himself has been moving target and imagine that you’re the person in charge of public health of people of largely densely populated state, in fact, most densely populated state in the Union, and these protocols continue to move and change.
It was my conclusion we need to do this to protect the public health of people of New Jersey. Governor Cuomo agreed. And now, Mayor Emanuel agrees. And I think the CDC eventually will come around to our point of view on this.
WALLACE: And what about Dr. Fauci who says it’s not good science to quarantine people when they’re not symptomatic because they can’t spread the disease in those situations.
CHRISTIE: Well, listen, I have great respect for Dr. Fauci. But what he’s counting on is voluntary system with folks who may or may not comply. We had the situation in New Jersey, Chris, as you know, with NBC News crew that said that they were going to self-quarantine and then two days later they were picking up takeout in Princeton and walking a around the streets of Princeton.
I mean, the fact of the matter is that we — 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 job is to protect safety and health of our citizens. And so, we’ve taken this action and I absolutely have no second thoughts about it.
However, it appears that the specter of a lawsuit from Hickox, as well as the potential of another one from the ACLU, led to Christie flip-flopping and allowing Hickox to return to Maine. Hickox has agreed to serve out the rest of the 21-day period at her home and the state’s Health and Human Service will work with her on the procedure. Christie has said that he will still require mandatory quarantines for anyone else that arrives in the state who was exposed to Ebola and shows potential symptoms.
Christie isn’t the only governor who is pushing mandatory quarantines. Also, this isn’t just contained to Republican governors. Four other states (New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Florida) have imposed restrictions similar to what Christie has put in place. New York’s Andrew Cuomo, a potential Democratic candidate for President in 2016, also loosened some of the restrictions that he put in place late last week. He is now allowing in-home quarantines. Meanwhile, the governors in the other three states are all dealing with tight elections that will likely come down to the wire. Therefore, they are caving to outsized public fears rather than the advice of experts in an effort to prove they are doing something.
Salon’s Jim Newell pointed out that the current political environment rewards politicians like Christie for acting quickly and irrationally while ginning up additional fear over a crisis that actually doesn’t exist.
It’s doubtful that the mess will hurt Christie politically. It was more likely the threat of a lawsuit that caused him to liberate his prisoner than the political unpopularity of the captivity. That other governors followed suit and instituted mandatory quarantine policies shows the appeal of such draconian measures. What do you expect when the public has been told to expect mass death from a virus (that’s currently being carried by one confirmed person out of 300-something million)? We’re now in a political environment where one can be expect rewards for having the “strength” to go directly against the advice of the medical establishment, which for strange electoral reasons has been labeled “incompetent” despite doing an extraordinary job keeping the virus contained.
This election season needs to end, pronto. It was “fine” when it was just candidates spouting demagogic idiocy in debates, on the campaign trail, in television ads. But now we have our first evidence that taking prisoners, real-life tangible human beings, is an acceptable form of pandering to hysteria. Hopefully we can make it through another eight days without a public hanging.
Somehow, President Obama is getting needlessly chastised for the presence of a disease that has claimed exactly one life in the United States and is only currently being carried by one person in this country. Meanwhile, lawmakers and pundits are trying to make political hay by pushing panic and fear. Taking measured, thoughtful steps towards dealing with an issue don’t drive people to the polls, apparently.