Bill Newman: Let science, not fear, guide on Ebola health care workers

Last modified: Friday, October 31, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — Many scary things — ghosts, goblins and IRS agents — undoubtedly came to your door last evening on Halloween.

I like Halloween. I remember as a kid going house to house dressed as a gunslinger, saying, “Trick or Treat for UNICEF.” I knew what UNICEF stood for, but I actually didn’t understand the trick or treating part until a friend explained the shakedown: hand over the Tootsie Rolls or we’re going to soap your windows, flatten your tires, or smash your pumpkins. (And actually, even if you give us candy, we might do that anyway.) But I digress.

The point is that threats can be scary.

Consider Ebola and Ikeoluwa Opayemi.

Ikeoluwa is a 7-year-old third-grader at Meadowside Elementary School in Milford, Connecticut. After a short vacation, school administrators recently banned her from the school for 21 days because she had accompanied her father on a trip to Nigeria.

In Nigeria, Ikeoluwa had not been exposed to Ebola and upon her return she had no fever and didn’t feel sick. In fact, there have been no known cases of Ebola in Nigeria. Not to put too fine a point on this, but the World Health Organization has declared Nigeria Ebola-free. If you (or a Meadowside Elementary School administrator) were to look at a map of Africa, you’d see that three countries separate Nigeria from Liberia, the country closest to Nigeria that has experienced an Ebola outbreak.

Ikeoluwa’s parents offered to have her tested for Ebola at their own expense, agreed to have the school nurse monitor her for symptoms and added that they would consider any additional reasonable measure to make the school feel more comfortable. The school’s response?

An emphatic No. Ignorance trumps science, medicine and fairness. Because some other parents might believe that Ikeoluwa somehow could be infected, (after all she was on the same continent where there is Ebola!), the school banned this completely healthy, never-exposed-to-Ebola student for 21 days.

And then there’s Kaci Hickox, the Doctors Without Borders health worker who returned to America through the Newark, New Jersey, airport from a month-long stint treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. At the airport Hickox registered a low-grade fever on a forehead scanner but tested negative for Ebola. Gov. Chris Christie had her quarantined anyway. After her lawyers threatened to sue, he let her go. Now she’s in Maine.

Health workers like Hickox — coming back from treating Ebola patients in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — are being treated like enemy combatants. They are not. They are heroes.

We want American health workers to go fight Ebola in West Africa. Erecting barricades — deterring them from their work — is dangerous as well as immoral. President Obama had it right when he said that we need to eradicate the epidemic there because otherwise it might actually, eventually spread here.

Ebola cannot be transmitted unless a person is symptomatic. Potentially infected individuals, like Hickox, have strong incentives to carefully monitor themselves. When those individuals cooperate with authorities in monitoring their health, a quarantine is not justifiable because it would serve no medical or scientifically-valid purpose.

Entirely irrational quarantines not only jettison civil liberties, they actually increase the dangers. Like those with HIV in the 1980s, stigmatizing potential carriers can drive them underground, induce them to lie about their experiences and make them hesitant to seek diagnosis and treatment.

The Centers for Disease Control has issued guidelines for people who have been in contact with Ebola patients. The guidelines require twice-daily contact with a local health official, one in person and one by phone, for 21 days. The guidelines make sense.

But paranoia runs deep. A recent CBS poll showed that 80 percent of Americans believe that American citizens and legal residents who potentially were exposed to Ebola should be quarantined until it is proven that they are not infected. And some elected officials, like Maine’s Governor Paul LePage, prefer to opt for measures based on polls rather than science.

States do have the power to quarantine an individual who pose an active threat to public health. This police power is longstanding and is not Ebola-specific.

But legal lines need to be drawn and respected. Quarantining an Ebola-exposed but asymptomatic person fails to meet the constitutional guarantee against unreasonable government seizures of individuals. A government seeking to come to grips with a public health emergency must use the least restrictive effective alternative to achieve the public safety goal.

During World War II, the United States imprisoned Americans of Japanese ancestry because of irrational fear. After 9/11, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Patriot Act and other laws that stole liberty and freedom from us, likewise based on irrational fear.

As Franklin Roosevelt said in 1933 about the Great Depression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Here we go again.

Bill Newman is a Northampton lawyer, host of a WHMP weekday program and author of “When the War Came Home.” His column appears the first Saturday of the month. He can be reached at


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