White House: Quarantine orders shouldn’t ‘burden’ health workers

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The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention is releasing new guidelines on Monday for healthcare workers returning from three Ebola-ravaged countries in Africa as the government grapples with how to keep the virus from spreading without locking up doctors and nurses.

It’s unclear whether the guidelines will be binding on states and other local governments, however. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said local officials would have “broad authority” to impose their own quarantine policies.

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Earnest underlined White House opposition to a 21-day mandatory quarantine the states of New Jersey and New York introduced last week after a doctor was found to have Ebola in New York City.

Policies and procedures should not “unduly burden” or discourage healthcare workers from going to West Africa to fight the virus, Earnest said.

“These individuals are heroes, and their commitment to their common man and to their country is one that should be respected,” he said. “And we believe that we can both show them the respect that they have earned while also ensuring that we have protocols in place to protect the American people.”

“We want to make sure that whatever policies are put in place in this country to protect the American public do not serve as a disincentive to doctors and nurses from this country volunteering to travel to West Africa to treat Ebola patients,” he added.

New Jersey’s government announced Monday it would be releasing a nurse who had been subject to the 21-day quarantine.

Both New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) retreated, to some extent, on Monday from the quarantine plan.

In New York, Cuomo said healthcare workers would be allowed to stay quarantined at home, rather than at a public facility.

Separately, other states announced their own policies, raising questions about a kaleidoscope of different policies.

Earnest did not endorse the idea of mandatory federal guidelines. Pressed if the lack of such guidelines could confuse the issue, he repeatedly said that reporters could “take that up with James Madison.”

The White House also downplayed reports that the Pentagon had begun quarantining soldiers returning home from West Africa. Pentagon spokesman Col. Steven Warren said soldiers returning from the region would remain for three weeks at their home station in Vicenza, Italy, and that about a dozen soldiers were being monitored “out of an abundance of caution.”

Approximately 500 troops are in Africa to help build hospitals and train healthcare workers, though they are not expected to treat Ebola patients.

But Earnest emphasized that that decision was made by “one commanding officer” and that Pentagon “policy has not been settled and implemented yet.”

Public health experts have noted that individuals infected with Ebola are not believed to be contagious unless they are showing symptoms of the disease, like a spiked fever.

And Earnest emphasized that the chances of an outbreak in the United States is unlikely.

“We’ve said many, many times, the likelihood of a widespread outbreak in this country of Ebola is exceedingly low,” he said. “But the only way that we can entirely eliminate that risk is to stop this Ebola outbreak in its tracks in West Africa. And in order to succeed in stopping this outbreak in West Africa, we’re going to need doctors and nurses traveling to West Africa to treat Ebola patients.”