By Sarah Ferris and Elise Viebeck - 10/24/14 05:29 PM EDT
Anyone considered “high-risk” for Ebola flying into New York or New Jersey will be quarantined for three weeks, the states’ governors announced Friday.
“A voluntary Ebola quarantine is not enough. This is too serious a public health situation,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said during a late afternoon press conference with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R).
Under the new policy in the two states, all travelers from high-risk areas will be interviewed about any contact with Ebola patients. If they have been exposed to the virus, they will be quarantined, and possibly medically monitored, until the incubation period has ended.
“There is no more ‘voluntary quarantine’ in New Jersey because you can't count on people to do it,” said Christie, a possible presidential contender in 2016. Cuomo agreed, adding that a voluntary quarantine is "almost an oxymoron to me.”
“This is not the time to take chances,” Cuomo said.
The announcement could preempt a move by the federal government to require quarantines for healthcare workers returning from countries with Ebola outbreaks. The White House said it is considering all options, but has not expressly supported a quarantine policy.
Lawmakers from both parties praised the idea at a House Oversight Committee hearing Friday. Members noted that the latest U.S. Ebola patient, doctor Craig Spencer, failed to self-quarantine as he developed Ebola symptoms.
The briefing by Cuomo and Christie, which was announced just minutes before the governors spoke, came shortly after New Jersey officials quarantined a woman who reportedly cared for Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. She has not presented symptoms.
Under federal law, states are given wide leeway in how they decide to respond to public health threats like Ebola. Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have pledged to support states with whatever procedures they put into place.
Christie slammed existing federal protocols, which he said are too lax.
“We are no longer relying on CDC standards," Christie said.
Cuomo said both states had received a greenlight to "establish their own guidelines" for Ebola.
The New York governor also announced a series of new steps that his state has taken to prevent a wider outbreak of Ebola. All hospitals have also been ordered to train their staff members about the protocols for treating patients, including how to properly put on and take off their medical gear, his office wrote in a statement Friday.
The governors said their goal is to limit Americans' exposure to people who may unknowingly be infected with Ebola.
Still, experts warned Friday that mandatory quarantines could weaken the international response effort by placing a burden on doctors whose help is vital — and voluntary.
"We cannot recruit staff from the U.S. or anywhere else in the world if there is not a chance they could come back to their families and their [jobs]" quickly, International Medical Corps Senior Vice President Rabih Torbay said in testimony to a House panel.
"Putting people in quarantine goes against our ability to recruit and retain [staff], and therefore, it will go against our ability to fight against the virus in West Africa."
Hundreds of American health workers are serving and have served in West Africa. Some, like the 40 or so staff members of the global nonprofit Samaritan’s Purse, follow their own guidelines, which are far stricter than the CDC’s.
For three weeks after arriving in the U.S., each volunteer from Samaritan’s Purse is told to follow the same three-foot “no touch” rule they had in West Africa. They are told not to use public transportation or visit with family or friends, though the group could not impose legal restrictions on their staff members.
The organization’s vice president Ken Isaacs warned that a quarantine should not turn into “locking people up in the compound,” which he said would deter Americans from helping to fight Ebola in West Africa.
“The word quarantine sends chills down my spine,” he said. “We have to find a balance. The disease needs to be fought in West Africa, it needs to be beaten there or it’s going to continue leaking out.”
— This story was updated at 6:10 p.m.