With Ebola, maybe we ought to trust officials over experts

“I would not be inclined to make a political decision on something as serious as Ebola,” Gov. Jerry Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Carla Marinucci on Monday. By Wednesday, California had joined New Jersey and New York in mandating 21-day quarantines for people returning from Ebola-stricken areas if they had contact with infected patients. Unlike New York, California had yet to see a confirmed Ebola case, although state health officials are aware of 19 individuals who recently traveled to an Ebola-affected country.

Of course, international leaders oppose American quarantines — which can only add to the already considerable burden assumed by U.S. health care workers who selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to care for strangers dealing with a scary contagion. “The best way to protect us is to stop the epidemic in Africa,” National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head Dr. Anthony Fauci argued, “and we need those health care workers, so we do not want to put them in a position where it makes it very, very uncomfortable for them to even volunteer to go.”

Nurse Kaci Hickox was quarantined for three days in New Jersey before she returned to her Maine home, where she is resisting a different quarantine order. Hickox has become the face of health care workers who oppose quarantines. She has not tested positive for Ebola. She says she was asymptomatic, but New Jersey health officials assert she had a fever. On Thursday, Hickox and her boyfriend went bicycling in defiance of the stay-home order. Biking on a country road was smart, because if she had gone for a walk through a public square, I don’t think she would have had as pleasant an outing.

Let me stipulate: Hickox is a better person than I am. She went to Sierra Leone to save lives, while I lived snugly in the Bay Area. But she doesn’t win points when she complains that the New Jersey quarantine was “inhumane” and asserts, as she told CNN, “We have to be very careful about letting politicians make health decisions.”

Others intone that quarantine orders go “against the science” — because experts say that the disease can be passed only when those with the virus are symptomatic. But scientists also know that a quarantine can prevent infected people from passing the virus on to others. So don’t tell me quarantines are anti-science.

And it’s not as if the experts have been right. Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas sent Thomas Eric Duncan home even though he was symptomatic and after he told the hospital he had recently traveled from Africa. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden said nurses could have contracted Ebola from Duncan only if they breached protocol — when we now know that early CDC protocols were a joke. NBC’s chief medical editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, was caught violating a voluntary quarantine that was in place because a member of her crew had contracted the virus in Liberia. Doctors Without Borders physician Craig Spencer apparently rode New York City subways when, having returned from treating Ebola patients in Guinea, he should have stayed off public transportation.

I don’t blame Spencer. He’s an American, and no American expects to get Ebola. Nor do the doctors and nurses who travel to Africa to minister to the sick. It’s simply not realistic to expect everyone who returns from West Africa to share the attitude of Stanford University physician Colin Bucks. Bucks told the San Jose Mercury News: “If I had to go outside the house, it would be completely safe. But for community reassurance, I’m staying completely inside my house and on the property. I wouldn’t want anything to happen that would heighten community anxiety.”

Seeing as Bucks’ attitude is not universal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was right when he told reporters: “I don’t believe, when you’re dealing with something as serious as this, that we can count on a voluntary system. This is government’s job. If anything else, the government’s job is to protect the safety and health of our citizens.” Like many others, I would rather see the government act a day or two early than a day or two late in this instance.

Debra J. Saunders’ email address is dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.

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