By Ellen Wulfhorst
A medical worker quarantined in New Jersey on her return from treating Ebola victims in West Africa was being evaluated in a hospital isolation ward on Saturday after new contagion-control safeguards were imposed for America’s biggest urban center.
She was the first to be quarantined under a policy imposed on Friday by the states of New York and New Jersey requiring all health workers coming from Ebola-stricken West African countries to be automatically confined for monitoring during the 21-day incubation period of the virus.
The worker, who has not been publicly identified, showed no symptoms when she arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport on Friday but developed a fever after being admitted to University Hospital in Newark, the state health department said.
Fever can be an early sign of the disease, which is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person who is exhibiting symptoms. No other details about her background or condition were given, but a department statement said she was “in isolation and being evaluated”.
New York and New Jersey officials acted to begin mandatory isolation of medical personnel arriving from Ebola zones after Craig Spencer, a doctor who treated patients in Guinea for a month, came back to New York City infected.
The new measures apply to two airports serving the greater New York City metropolitan area – John F. Kennedy International in New York and Newark Liberty in New Jersey. They are among five airports through which the federal government has recently ordered all U.S.-bound travelers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea funneled for special Ebola screening.
The worst Ebola outbreak on record has killed at least 4,800 people since March, mostly in those three West African nations, and perhaps as many as 15,000, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Only four Ebola patients have been diagnosed so far in the United States: Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan, who died on Oct. 8 at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, two nurses who treated him there; and Spencer, the first New York City case.
President Barack Obama has so far resisted calls by some politicians to institute a U.S. ban on travel to and from West Africa.
But expanding mandatory quarantines to healthcare workers arriving through all five designated U.S. airports is an option under consideration by the administration, Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told Reuters.
NEW YORK CITY CASE PROMPTS TOUGHER ACTION
The two-state quarantine policy was instituted a day after Spencer, a physician for the humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), tested positive for Ebola and was admitted to a special isolation unit at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan.
City health officials have said Spencer, 33, did not begin to show symptoms until Thursday morning, the day of his hospitalization, and was thus not contagious before then.
However, public fears about transmission of the disease were stoked by the disclosure that he had ridden subways, taken a taxi and visited a bowling alley in the days before he fell ill.
Three people who had close contact with Spencer since his return to New York, including his fiancée, were quarantined as well, but they were reported still healthy on Friday. Medical detectives, meanwhile, tried to retrace Spencer’s steps in the city in search of others who might have been exposed.
After first seeking to allay concerns that Spencer put others at risk by venturing out in public before becoming sick, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Friday that common sense demanded a more cautious approach.
He was joined by Governor Chris Christie of neighboring New Jersey, marking a bipartisan teaming of two prominent political figures to take steps going beyond national restrictions being imposed by the Obama administration.
Cuomo is seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party led by Obama, and Christie, a Republican, is widely discussed as a potential 2016 contender for the White House.
In Washington, Obama also sought to reassure a worried public with an Oval Office hug of Dallas nurse Nina Pham, who was declared Ebola-free on Friday after catching the virus from Duncan.
Emory University Hospital in Atlanta and the CDC also confirmed that the second nurse, Amber Vinson, no longer had detectable levels of virus but did not set a date for her to leave that facility.
Spencer’s case brought to nine the total number of people treated for Ebola in U.S. hospitals since August. Just two, Pham and Vinson, contracted the virus in the United States.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest declined to discuss the possibility of a nationwide quarantine policy but said “these kinds of policy decisions are going to be driven by science” and the advice of medical experts.
A senior administration official said it was important for the United States to take “coordinated” action on the issue, noting federal officials had met as recently as Friday morning, but have not yet made a decision.
The prospect of expanding quarantines also raised questions about balancing the needs for safeguarding public health with protecting civil liberties, legal experts said.
“It’s a severe restriction that the use of which should be very much guarded, that people should have a right to an attorney and some type of due process,” said attorney Joel Kupferman, executive director of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project. “When they quarantine someone, they should make sure that they are not treated as a criminal.”