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Obama Warns Against Ebola Quarantines

  • Luis Ramirez

President Barack Obama says American health workers who volunteer to fight Ebola in West Africa should be applauded and not discouraged. His remarks come as some U.S. states go against federal recommendations on how to handle workers who have had contact with Ebola patients.

Without mentioning any state by name, the president on Tuesday said policies on quarantines and isolation of health workers who have had contact with Ebola patients should not be such that they discourage Americans from helping fight the disease.

“Those workers who are willing and able and dedicated to go over there in a really tough job, that they’re applauded, thanked and supported. That should be our priority," said President Obama.

The president made his remarks after the states of New York and New Jersey ordered the quarantine of health care workers who have had contact with Ebola patients. In one New Jersey case, a nurse returning from treating Ebola victims in West Africa was held in a tent. The incident caused outrage among some medical experts.

The administration has rejected calls for a ban on travel to and from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and recommended against automatic quarantines of people arriving from those countries.

Obama reminded Americans Tuesday that only two people have been infected with Ebola on U.S. soil. He said officials should be guided by science, not fear, in dealing with the disease.

The president warned that restricting the movement of health workers would be counterproductive.

“We have to keep leading the global response. America cannot look like it is shying away because other people are watching what we do and if we don’t have robust international response in West Africa, then we are actually endangering ourselves here back home," said Obama.

The president spoke as he left the White House on a campaign trip to the state of Wisconsin ahead of congressional elections next week.

Obama’s Democratic party is concerned that fear of Ebola may cost it votes in the elections, since some people accuse the administration of not doing enough to protect Americans from an outbreak on U.S. soil.

Surrounded by hospital staff Tuesday at her news conference, nurse Vinson thanked the professionals at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta who contributed to her care.

But she said that "while this is a day for celebration and gratitude," she asks people to "not lose focus" on the thousands of families who continue to labor under the burden of Ebola in West Africa.

The head of the hospital's serious communicable disease unit, Dr. Bruce Ribner, said hospital staff determined Vinson is free of infection after what he described as "a rigorous course of treatment and thorough testing." He said she can return to her family, community and life "without any concerns" about transmitting the virus to others.

Dr. Ribner said "anxiety" about Ebola in the U.S. is understandable, but that health care workers "must not let fear get in the way" of their primary mission of caring for patients with serious diseases.

Another nurse forced into quarantine in New Jersey last week, after returning from treating Ebola patients in West Africa, is now back in her home state of Maine.

Maine officials say Kaci Hickox is expected to quarantine herself at home through the 21-day maximum Ebola incubation period. But her lawyer says she does not need to be in isolation because she shows no symptoms. She had described the way she was treated in New Jersey as "inhumane."

Hickox was the first person to be quarantined under New Jersey's new policy requiring isolation for all health care workers returning from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone - the three countries hardest hit by Ebola.

The Obama administration and medical experts have criticized mandatory quarantine rules in states including New Jersey as excessive.

Meanwhile, humanitarian groups in Australia are criticizing the government's policy to impose a blanket ban on visas for citizens of the three West African nations affected by the Ebola virus outbreak.

The new policy cancels non-permanent or temporary visas for travelers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Permanent visa holders who have not yet arrived in Australia are being asked to submit to a 21-day quarantine period.

Announced by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, the policy makes Australia the first wealthy nation to close its immigration doors in response to the Ebola outbreak.

Despite some suspected cases, medical authorities say there have been no confirmed Ebola cases in Australia.

In response, Sierra Leone Information Minister Alpha Kanu said on Tuesday that Australia's move was “too draconian.” Kanu said that measures at Sierra Leone's Freetown airport had successfully prevented anyone flying out of the country with Ebola.

The visa ban has triggered widespread criticism from aid groups and professional health workers who call the response to the outbreak "narrow.”

Health workers said the country has monitoring and quarantine policies in place that will protect against Ebola’s spread, without stoking public fears over travel bans.

Ebola Cases and Deaths as of October 23, 2014

Ebola Cases and Deaths as of October 23, 2014

WHO response

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended against imposing travel or trade bans on the affected nations, arguing that those nations are in need of international help, not isolation, to defeat the outbreak.

The WHO said on Tuesday that it has been difficult to get across its simple message that people who do not display symptoms of Ebola are not contagious and cannot transmit the disease to others.

WHO spokesman Tarek Jasarevic exhibited a bit of frustration when he repeated the U.N. health agency’s recommendation advising against mandatory quarantine.

Jasarevic said health workers who go to West Africa to fight Ebola know how to monitor themselves for symptoms of the disease when they return home.

“We desperately need international health workers. We keep calling for health workers," Jasarevic said. "They are really the key to this response. And these people should not be treated when coming home in a way that they would be stigmatized by the rest of the population.”

However, similar to Australia, several other countries in Africa and the Caribbean have toughened entry rules or banned visas for travelers from the three worst-affected countries.

US, UN response

The U.S. government has drawn up new health rules calling for returning medics to be monitored for symptoms of Ebola, not placed in quarantine.

But the states of New York, New Jersey and Illinois are standing by their decisions to quarantine health workers for the duration of the 21-day incubation period.

Obama and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have appealed to Australia to send personnel to fight the spreading Ebola virus.

So far Australia has donated aid but not medical workers. The government said it resisted sending personnel because of the long, 30-hour journey back to Australia for ill patients.

The WHO said it feared the quarantine measures could put people off volunteering to go to Africa.

"This is not an African crisis ... it is a global crisis," said Kim, who was visiting Ethiopia.

"We'll need a steady state of at least 5,000 health workers from outside the region, ... Those health workers cannot work continuously, there needs to be a rotation," Kim said. "So we will need many thousands of health workers over the next months to a year to bring this epidemic under control."

The three worst-hit countries - Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea - are sorely lacking in medical infrastructure and funds due to a series of interlinked civil wars.

Ron Corben contributed to this report from Bangkok. Lisa Schlein contributed to this report from Geneva. Some material for this report came from Reuters and AP.

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