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New York state backtracks on Ebola rules after White House weighs in

Kaci Hickox, who became the first American health worker isolated under the new quarantine orders on Friday, claims she was made to feel like a criminal and that her compulsory quarantining was 'inhumane'.

world Updated: Oct 27, 2014 12:10 IST
Ebola,White House,Kaci Hickox

New York state on Sunday relaxed its rules for how people arriving from Ebola-stricken West Africa must be treated, ending a mandatory isolation period for even those who had no contact with an infected patient.

New York, New Jersey and Illinois have drafted in measures that see health care workers returning from West Africa -- epicenter of the most deadly Ebola outbreak on record -- quarantined for three weeks, while a fourth US state, Florida, has ordered twice-daily monitoring during that period.

But under pressure from the White House, where officials believe these rules could deter health workers from helping fight the epidemic in West Africa, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo rushed to ease his state's Ebola-clearance procedures.

Residents talk on the street in the Clifton neighborhood of Staten Island, New York. Home to a community known as "Little Liberia" due to having the largest concentration of Liberians outside Africa, the neighborhood of Clifton is now fighting against the stigma of Ebola after renewed worries and political concern over the case of Dr. Craig Spencer, the fourth person to be diagnosed with the illness in the United States and the first in the country's largest city. Reuters Photo

Cuomo said late Sunday that there would no longer be a blanket quarantine procedure from all people entering the state from affected countries in West Africa.

Instead, if someone arrives from an affected area with no symptoms and without having had direct contact with people infected with Ebola, no home confinement will be required. Meanwhile health officials will monitor these travelers twice daily for temperature and other symptoms until the 21-day incubation period has run out.

For those who have had contact with Ebola-infected people in West Africa but are not showing symptoms themselves, Cuomo said his state now will require them to be confined to home for three weeks.

Health department officials will transport them and monitor their health daily throughout the isolation period, he explained.

Earlier, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio sounded defiant as he gave no indication he planned to bow to White House pressure.

Kaci Hickox, who became the first American health worker isolated under the new quarantine orders on Friday, claims she was made to feel like a criminal and that her compulsory quarantining was "inhumane."

De Blasio attempted to quell the firestorm over Hickox's outspoken remarks, in which she hit out at officials' attitude toward her from the moment she landed at Newark International Airport in New Jersey on Friday.

"This hero was treated with disrespect, was treated with a sense that she had done something wrong, when she hadn't; was not given a clear direction," de Blasio told a press conference.

"We owe her better than that and all the people better than that."

Health authorities have also expressed concern that the strict new rules will discourage badly needed health workers from volunteering in West Africa, where more than 4,900 people have already died of the hemorrhagic Ebola virus.

US President Barack Obama's administration has urged the governors of New York and New Jersey to reverse the quarantine rules, The New York Times reported.

After Obama's meeting with his public health and national security aides Sunday, the White House said in a statement their moves were not the best choices.

US measures, it said, "must recognize that health care workers are an indispensable element of our effort to lead the international community to contain and ultimately end this outbreak at its source, and should be crafted so as not to unnecessarily discourage those workers from serving."

Evangelical Christians march for a spiritual solution to the Ebola virus epidemic in Monrovia. Reuters Photo

'Rights violated'

There have been nine cases of Ebola in the United States so far, most among health workers who volunteered in Africa, with only one death.

Hickox, who was helping treat patients in hard-hit Sierra Leone before her return to the United States, has been isolated outside the main hospital building.

She has only been allowed to wear paper scrubs, and the tent is equipped with just a hospital bed, a non-flush chemical toilet and no shower.

On Saturday, she wrote a scathing assessment of her experience.

"I feel like my basic human rights have been violated," she told CNN's "State of the Union" show, insisting she was not contagious because she has shown no symptoms and tested negative for the disease.

"To put me in prison... is just inhumane."


Some health experts have sided with Hickox.

"The best way to protect us is to stop (the outbreak) in Africa, and one of the best ways to stop it in Africa is to get health workers who are going there and helping them with their problem," National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci told CNN.

"When they come back, they need to be treated in a way that doesn't disincentivize them from going there."

His comments came as the US envoy to the United Nations, Samantha Power, worried the new quarantine policies were "haphazard and not well thought out."

"We cannot take measures here that are going to impact our ability to flood the zone" with health workers, said Power, as she began a tour of West African nations struggling with the disease.

"We have to find the right balance between addressing the legitimate fears that people have and encouraging and incentivizing these heroes."

US envoy hits out at global response

The US ambassador to the United Nations has criticised the level of international support for nations hit by Ebola as she begins a tour of west African nations at the epicentre of the deadly outbreak.

Samantha Power said before arriving in Guinea on Sunday that too many leaders were praising the efforts of countries like the United States and Britain to accelerate aid to the worst-affected nations, while doing little themselves.

"The international response to Ebola needs to be taken to a wholly different scale than it is right now," Power told NBC News.

She said many countries "are signing on to resolutions and praising the good work that the United States and the United Kingdom and others are doing, but they themselves haven't taken the responsibility yet to send docs, to send beds, to send the reasonable amount of money."

Besides Guinea, Power will travel to Sierra Leone and Liberia -- the three nations that account for the vast majority of the 4,922 deaths from the Ebola epidemic.

More than 10,000 people have contracted the virus in west Africa, according to the latest World Health Organization figures.

Another country in the region, Mali, is scrambling to prevent a wider outbreak after a two-year-old girl died from her Ebola infection following a 1,000-kilometre (600-mile) bus ride from Guinea. She was Mali's first recorded case of the disease.

Ebola can fell its victims within days, causing severe fever and muscle pain, weakness, vomiting and diarrhoea -- in some cases shutting down organs and causing unstoppable bleeding.

The tropical virus is spread though close contact with the sweat, vomit, blood or other bodily fluids of an infected person. No widely-available medicine or vaccine exists.

First Published: Oct 27, 2014 09:47 IST