Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, told Yahoo News Friday that “blanket restrictions” on health care workers returning from West Africa could worsen the Ebola epidemic in the region.
“The best way to protect Americans here is to completely suppress the epidemic in West Africa, and one of the important ways of doing that is getting these very brave and very self-sacrificing volunteers to give up their time and go there,” said Fauci, who’s helped lead the national response to Ebola.
Over the past week, several states, including New York, New Jersey and Maine, have instituted or moved toward enforcing mandatory, 21-day quarantines for doctors and nurses returning from West Africa, defying federal guidelines.
Fauci said enforcing mandatory quarantines on all health care workers could create a “disincentive” for people to help the effort, since they’d need to include another three weeks they could not spend with their families or at work in addition to the time they volunteered with patients. “We don’t want an unintended consequence of weakening our own effort,” he said.
But Fauci would not comment on two Republican governors’ decision to force nurse Kaci Hickox into mandatory quarantine when she returned from volunteering with Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone, first in a tent in New Jersey and then at her home in Maine. On Friday afternoon, a judge overturned Gov. Paul LePage’s order that Hickox stay inside her home for 21 days, citing evidence that people do not spread the deadly virus unless they are showing symptoms.
When Fauci was asked if he agreed with LePage’s original order that Hickox stay inside her home, even though she did not have Ebola symptoms, he said, “I don’t want to go there.”
The infectious disease expert added, “I don’t want to second-guess what other people have done.”
Maine Judge Charles C. LaVerdiere criticized the "misconceptions, misinformation, bad science and bad information" circulating about Ebola in his decision lifting Hickox’s quarantine order.
Fauci said he respects the American public’s fear of the disease.
“First of all, we do appreciate and understand the fears of the general public, and we even understand that some of the officials who are moving towards quarantine are likely acting in good faith to protect their constituents,” Fauci said.
Federal guidelines suggest that state health departments actively monitor returning health care workers daily. Health care workers would monitor and report their symptoms, and if a fever or even fatigue appeared, the patient would isolate himself or herself at home. Volunteers who suspect they had become infected while in West Africa would be quarantined.
“It’s not an all-or-none phenomenon,” Fauci said.
Federal health officials have stressed that only two people have contracted the disease while in the United States — two of the nurses who cared for Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas. They’ve tried to tamp down fearful responses from politicians and the public.
“When people are afraid of diseases — that could be HIV/AIDS, the anthrax attack, SARS — you don’t want to denigrate that or disrespect it,” Fauci said.
“We understand and respect when people have fear, but the best thing we can do is try to present over and over again the scientific evidence that should really alleviate the fear."