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Ebola Virus Outbreak

Ebola Quarantines Were Stupid and Wrong, Report Says

Image: Kaci Hickox

Nurse Kaci Hickox leaves her home on a rural road in Fort Kent, Maine, to take a bike ride after being ordered into Ebola quarantine. Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Fear-mongering and ignorance drove states to force health workers into quarantine when they returned from fighting Ebola in West Africa, and the restrictions were probably unconstitutional, a new report says.

What's more, no one has kept statistics on how many people were put into quarantine across the United States in the last year, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Yale Global Health Justice Partnership said in a joint report issued Tuesday.

But virtually all of them were unnecessarily kept at home, endangering their jobs, disrupting their private lives and damaging efforts to fight the epidemic, the strongly worded report says.

"Our leaders were enabled by a fear-mongering mass media that also ignored established medical science, further stoking panic and compounding an already immense public disservice," Dr. Deane Marchbein, president of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières USA, wrote in an introduction to the report.

Ebola has infected more than 28,000 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia and killed more than 11,000 of them. The epidemic is over but cases occasionally pop up — most recently in three people in Liberia. The World Health Organization says there haven't been any new cases anywhere in the past week.

Kaci Hickox, the Doctors Without Borders nurse who was quarantined in New Jersey and Maine when she returned from treating patients last year, became the most public face of the debate.

What's Out There to Treat Ebola? 0:42

She has sued Gov. Chris Christie for allegedly imprisoning her against her will. Her suit is seeking $250,000 in damages from Christie, former state Health Commissioner Mary O'Dowd and other health department employees for false imprisonment, violation of due process and invasion of privacy.

There's no question that Americans were afraid of the virus even as health officials tried to reassure the public that Ebola, while very deadly, isn't that easy to catch.

The only people who carried Ebola to the U.S. from West Africa were Dr. Craig Spencer, who was isolated and treated in New York as soon as he showed symptoms and who recovered, and Thomas Eric Duncan, who died in Dallas last October.

"His infection, and the subsequent illness of two of his nurses at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, sparked disproportionate, nation-wide hysteria and outsized fear of an outbreak in the United States," Marchbein wrote.

Both nurses recovered, but their cases set off another round of panic that included disinfection of an airplane that one of the nurses had been on and the quarantine of another's pet dog.

"The Ebola quarantines and other movement restrictions put in place throughout the nation beginning in late 2014 were motivated by fear and by politics, not by medical science," the report says.

"We need to learn from the mishandling of the U.S. Ebola epidemic that wasn't, and respond to future health scares with smart policies based on decades of scientific evidence, not reactive policies based on misinformation and political grandstanding. Punitive and scientifically baseless approaches violate the law and make us less safe."

The report says that by December of last year, 23 states had announced quarantine and movement restriction policies that exceeded guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It says people quarantined under these restrictions were illegally deprived of their right to due process under the Constitution's 14th Amendment because the quarantines and movement restrictions were not scientifically justified.

Politicians, the report said, wanted to look strong and effective even if they knew the restrictions weren't needed.

"When health care workers return from an Ebola outbreak, we take necessary precautions and monitor our health," said Marchbein. "But there was and continues to be no medical reason to quarantine and stigmatize asymptomatic health care workers upon returning home."

Health workers were forced to stay indoors for 21 days, not only putting stress on their medical institutions, where colleagues had to pick up the slack, but discouraging other volunteers from going over to fight the epidemic.

The CDC said at the time this was endangering everyone, because without experts volunteering to help stop the spread of the virus, it would only spread more and threaten countries everywhere.