Is Chris Christie Making the Right Choices to Protect NJ From Ebola?

Gov. Christie Celebrates Birthday With Mitt Romney In New Jersey

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Media attention directed at New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been full of controversy over the last few weeks, first with his commentary on the minimum wage — reminiscent of Mitt Romney’s 47% comment — and more recently with his decision to quarantine a nurse returning home from working with patients in Sierra Leone.

First some background on what the decision entailed, and what information was available when it was made, before we look at why he may have made a mistake, and if so, how serious a mistake it is. The nurse in question, Kaci Hickox, had returned from working with patients in West Africa when she set off a temperature detector in the airport. The detector was a forehead thermometer which put her temperature at a feverish 101 degrees. “They were using a forehead scanner, and I was distressed and a little bit upset and so my cheeks were flushed,” Hickox told CNN, “And I believe that there is some evidence that machine is not very accurate in these kinds of situations. So when I arrived in the isolation unit they took my temperature orally and it was normal.”

She was removed from a flight and held unwillingly in a quarantine tent within a New Jersey medical center where she was kept for a period of three days. The tent was equipped with a portable toilet but no shower, and Hickox told CNN that her “basic human rights have been violated.” She has since hired a lawyer, Norman Siegel, who has indicated that actions are pending. “First of all, I don’t think he’s a doctor; secondly, he’s never laid eyes on me; and thirdly, I’ve been asymptomatic since I’ve been here … and if he knew anything about Ebola he would know that asymptomatic people are not infectious,” said Hickox, noting that while “there always needs to be a balance,” she felt she had not been “treated with compassion and humanity.”

Why Christie Made a Mistake

Some of Gov. Christie’s remarks have a sort of comforting appeal in the face of a great deal of fear — in particular from Republicans during the Senate election period — surrounding the first few cases of Ebola in the United States. His argument that New Jersey had taken a “common sense approach that the federal government wasn’t taking” in quarantining her has some counterpoints, in particular when it comes to the logistics of a quarantine and how realistic that is for each individual returning from working to help treat Ebola overseas.

In particular, it requires a great deal of resources, it places unnecessary and expensive demands on health care workers and hospitals, and depending on the length of time may be difficult to pull off in a humane, fair, and enforceable way as is deserved by doctors, nurses, and other personnel who have risked their own safety to help others. For one thing, if those residents of New Jersey who are asymptomatic are quarantined in the home, as is suggested by the Governor’s release on the matter (offered by Kevin Roberts, the spokesman for Christie’s office), it’s entirely possible that some sort of enforcement and monitoring must be in place to ensure this happens. And if one is forced to remain in the home, supplies may be needed, which begs a whole slew of questions as to how that is to be accomplished.

Additionally, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases at the national Institute of Health, told NBC that monitoring such individuals would be a better way to go about it, as opposed to forced quarantine. “Go with the science,” he said, warning against “draconian” demands that could have “unintended consequences.”

Will He Apologize?

Christie has made it quite clear that he will not be apologizing. But more importantly, he won’t be changing policy, and he won’t be admitting any mistake in the case of Hickox — understandable, as in this case apologizing would admit wrongdoing and open the state up for legal liability. It would also force him into a PR situation that would make it look like he’d made a mistake, something he’s insisting he hasn’t done, and something he’s unlikely to do willingly with his eye so carefully on the 2016 presidential election.

Even if quarantining symptomatic travelers and medical personnel is considered necessary, Christie publicly stating that Hickox was “obviously ill” and refusing to later admit that he may have been ill-informed or wrong is irksome, and shows an unwillingness to take responsibility for a poorly implemented policy. If you’re going to have bad policy, at least put that policy into place with perfection. Once it was shown that her temperature was indeed normal and the forehead thermometer had been in error, it should have been a simple enough situation to remedy.

Instead, it turned into a media mess, and soon a legal one. “She took great offense at everything I said,” Christie argued in defense of his remarks that Hickox was obviously very ill.  “I have no reason to talk to her. My job is not to represent her, it’s to represent the people of New Jersey.” Later in this same interview, he claimed that while only New Jersey and a few other states including New York, have implemented this mandatory policy, he insists it “is going to become a national policy eventually. Eventually the CDC will come around.”

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