WH: Army Ebola policy not needed for civilians

The Army's decision to quarantine soldiers returning from West Africa is related to logistical concerns, meaning that the same protocols would not be appropriate for civilian doctors traveling back to the United States from the region, the White House said Tuesday.

"The science would not back that up," press secretary Josh Earnest said. "In fact, implementing this military policy in a civilian context would only have the effect of hindering our Ebola response by dissuading civilian doctors and nurses from traveling to West Africa to stop the outbreak in its tracks."

On Monday, the Army announced that soldiers returning from West Africa would be held in Italy for three weeks before they would be allowed to travel to bases in the United States or other parts of the world. 

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That raised new questions about Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines also announced Monday, which suggest that "high risk" individuals who came into direct contact with the bodily fluids of an Ebola patient should isolate themselves in their homes and avoid public transit. But returning health officials who wore protective gear should only regularly monitor themselves for symptoms of the disease and could travel freely under the CDC guidelines.

That appeared to contrast sharply with the Army policies, which mandated the three-week quarantine, even for soldiers who do not come into contact with Ebola patients.

But Earnest intimated the decision was logistical, not based in differing opinions on the capacity of the disease to spread. The White House said it was possible to do a "personal risk assessment" of doctors returning back from West Africa because only a few dozen were entering the United States each week.

"It’s much more difficult, I think for obvious reasons, to conduct a personalized assessment of risk and tailor a monitoring regime for them when you’re talking about thousands of people who performed a wide variety of functions in a wide variety of locations in this region of the world," Earnest said. "And when they’re preparing to travel back to a wide range of localities, not just around the United States but around the globe."

"For the sake of efficiency, there’s an obvious benefit to restricting the movements of these individuals so that their health can be monitored consistent with scientific guidelines," he added.

Earnest added that soldiers made a "wide range of sacrifices" in the name of efficiency and uniformity.

"To take a more pedestrian example than the medical one that we’re talking about, there might be some members of the military who think that the haircut that’s required may not be their best, but that’s the haircut that they get every couple of weeks, because it is in the best interest of their unit and it maintains unit cohesion," Earnest said.

The White House also rejected the idea that the unique military standards, combined with the patchwork of policies developed by state and local officials, was sowing confusion.

"I do think that we’re starting to see an emerging consensus from other states about the policies that can be best implemented to protect their civilians," Earnest said.