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NJ should follow CDC guidelines for handling Ebola crisis

The media has sensationalized the Ebola epidemic to such a point that many of us, including myself, have lost sight of the science and the facts. Last, week I remember agreeing with my peers in thinking that Kaci Hickox, the first nurse arriving from West Africa to undergo the mandatory 21-day Ebola quarantine that Governor Chris Christie enacted on Oct. 24, was selfish in complaining about the poor treatment she received during the screening and quarantine process. “Why can’t she just suck it up and deal with it for the good of the rest of us?” I remember one of my peers chiming in. At the time, I could not help but agree. Sure, she was not treated in the best way possible, and the treatment of quarantined individuals should most definitely improve in the future, but did she not see that she could potentially endanger the entire American population? (It was later revealed that she had tested negative for the disease, so there was no way she was communicable). I see now, after further reading, how wrong I was. I have, like many of my peers, fallen victim to this media-driven, sensationalized, Ebola hysteria. And according to a poll conducted by the Monmouth University, so have 2/3 of New Jersey voters since they all approved of the way that Governor Christie has handled the Ebola issue. It is therefore critical that everyone looks beyond this Ebola frenzy and understands the facts.

About three weeks ago, Christie enacted a mandatory 21-day quarantine for health care workers and other passengers who are arriving from West Africa and who have had contact with Ebola victims. This strong policy was an attempt to quell the fears about an Ebola outbreak in New Jersey after New York’s Doctor Craig Spencer tested positive for the disease (as of Monday, he is cured of Ebola and is being released from a New York hospital). At the surface, this strategy may appear to be effective and proactive, but in reality, it is counterproductive.

First of all, the way to truly halt the Ebola epidemic is to target it at its source: West Africa. In order to do so successfully, the United States needs to continually send health care volunteer workers to aid Ebola victims in Africa. However, if we impose this mandatory quarantine, traveling to Africa to help care for Ebola patients will be even less attractive to many healthcare workers—especially if they receive, as Hickox did, poor treatment. While healthcare workers are compensated for the work they may miss by being quarantined under the New Jersey policy, 21 days is still a long period of time that can seriously set back hardworking and active individuals. It is our responsibility to reward these healthcare workers for their service—not to punish them and treat them like criminals.

Second of all, the mandatory quarantine for health care workers that are not displaying symptoms is straight-out unnecessary. Individuals infected with Ebola are not contagious until they start displaying symptoms. Furthermore, a fever often develops before the individual becomes contagious, so if these potentially infected individuals simply monitor their own temperature, they will be able to avoid spreading the disease. The case of Thomas Duncan, the man who died from Ebola in Texas in October, is one example of this fact: his family members, who were around him during the initial phases of the disease, did not contract Ebola.

Thus, what I propose instead is that the state governments follow the Center for Disease Control’s protocol by having high-risk, asymptomatic healthcare workers isolate themselves and report their temperature to local officials frequently for the 21 days after their arrival. These healthcare workers, who are returning from treating the disease are, without a doubt, knowledgeable about Ebola and can adequately assess if they are beginning to develop symptoms. For example, Doctor Craig Spencer was suspicious of the fever that he developed almost a week after his return from treating Ebola patients in West Africa, immediately reported his elevated temperature to authorities, and to this day, has not infected anyone else in New York City—despite the high density of the area. Thus, the CDC’s protocol has proven to be effective, and hopefully, will continue to be effective.

I will admit that the CDC’s policy is not a flawless one, for it is difficult to implement. How can we be certain that these at-risk healthcare personnel will be trustworthy and report their symptoms to the proper authorities? The reality is, without a mandatory quarantine, we cannot. We must depend on their good will and honesty and hope that, as medical workers, they recognize the importance of reporting their potential symptoms for the well being of the public.

However, the CDC’s policy is still, in my opinion, a better alternative to Christie’s mandatory quarantine because it still allows us to target the disease at its roots. While Christie’s policy may be popular and help quell the public’s fear about the spread of Ebola, it is a policy rooted in fear, not science, and may only serve to exacerbate the situation by discouraging healthcare workers to volunteer in West Africa.

Vandana Apte is a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences sophomore majoring in biotechnology with a minor in public health. Her column, “Under the Microscope,” runs on alternate Thursdays.

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