Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016

No, it was not OK that Dr. Craig Spencer ran around New York City upon his return from treating Ebola patients in Guinea. Among other activities, he took the subways, went bowling in Brooklyn, strolled the crowded High Line park and patronized a meatball joint in Greenwich Village.

True, he was not showing symptoms of the disease and therefore was highly unlikely to have passed it on to others. And yes, when when he started displaying signs of illness, he dutifully checked himself into Bellevue Hospital’s isolation unit.

Still, wouldn’t it have been better had the brave doctor not rushed into the urban swirl right after exposing himself to possible infection? Even if he didn’t do an official 21-day quarantine, Spencer could have stayed indoors for a while, away from the teeming crowds.

Most would agree. That’s why the governors of New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Florida — two Democrats and two Republicans — instituted a mandatory isolation period for medical personnel back from treating Ebola patients in West Africa. In the face of criticism by national public health officials opposing such measures, New York’s Andrew Cuomo backed down a bit, deciding that remaining at home would suffice.

Make the case, if you want, that forcing the heroic medical workers into isolation for 21 days — the maximum incubation time for contracting the disease — will discourage many from volunteering to treat patients in afflicted countries. But then let’s balance that inconvenience against the inconvenience of having to marshal a city’s resources to track every step the medic took between landing and checking in to a hospital.

New York City sanitized the bowling alley, the meatball shop and Spencer’s apartment, even as city health officials reassured the patrons and Spencer’s neighbors that they were never much at risk. Police were posted outside Spencer’s building.

Again, Ebola is not easily transmitted, and those with it can’t infect others until they show full-blown symptoms — including high temperatures, vomiting and diarrhea. For that reason, Doctors Without Borders tells returning health care workers to stay within four hours of an isolation unit.

But suppose a doctor or nurse with signs of the disease is stuck in an airport or stranded in a snowstorm or attributes troubling symptoms to something else. Following the guidelines, meanwhile, is voluntary. You see the public’s concern.

Kaci Hickox, a nurse who worked with Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, has bitterly complained about being put into mandatory quarantine upon landing in Newark, New Jersey. She has slammed her accommodations as shabby and claims to have been treated like a “criminal.” She now has a lawyer.

The public response has been mixed. Many ask why her much-vaunted compassion couldn’t have been extended to the officials scrambling to address the fears generated by stories of a doctor out and about with Ebola.

Mandatory quarantine is not a punishment. It is a public health tool designed to protect a population from those carrying deadly infectious disease. It is not voluntary by design.

Of course, these brave health care workers deserve four-star lodging and pay for any missed work. And the quarantine system may need fine-tuning to differentiate among the levels of risk to which the workers were exposed. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, suggested that over the weekend.

But it’s not too much to ask medical professionals who do dangerous work abroad to accept extra precautions when they return home. For the record, many have said they understand the need. Those who feel the rules require too much sacrifice should stay home — and leave the treatment of Ebola victims to sturdier souls.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected] To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at

AFP Photo/Jewel Samad

Want more political news and analysis? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

  • howa4x

    Let’s get in touch with reality for a moment. I used to do bioterrorism response planning and putting people who show no symptoms into mandatory quarantine is over the top. All hospitals have isolation rooms that could be used to treat infectious people and there was no need except hysteria to keep this woman in a tent outside the hospital. This is not plague that spreads person to person airborne and has a mortality rate of 90%. This is a disease that only kills 50% of its victims with no treatment n Africa. It should be noted that the index case(1st to die) Michael Duncan didn’t even infect his wife and family and he was in close proximity to them. Most medical professionals who have worked with Ebola know the threat better than any governor or Doctor here, and if not symptomatic can easily be home quarantined with a 2x day temperature regimen, instead of being stigmatized to an entire country as a pariah. This whole Ebola fear hysteria is birthed by a media addicted to headline news whether real, exaggerated or just made up. Why don’t they quarantine people with the Flu that actually kills over 30,000 a year, but with out the headlines of an exotic virus.

    • Yunzer

      And why don’t workers in the US get mandatory paid sick leave, with no threat of getting fired if they take sick days off, so they CAN quarantine themselves when they have the flu?

  • annienoel

    Let’s see fear fear mongers…exactly one person in the US has died from Ebola. In California in 2014 three children have died from Pertussis…whooping cough. Using your logic (or lack thereof) we should quarantine…permanently all the people who refuse to immunize their children.

  • Gale Hawthorne

    Slowing the rise of the oceans? The low-IQ members of the Obama regime aren’t even capable of building a functional website.