Ebola Scare in Missouri Raises Questions About State-Local Communication

A licensed clinician sanitizes his hands after a simulated Ebola training session on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014, in Anniston, Ala. A licensed clinician sanitizes his hands after a simulated Ebola training session on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014, in Anniston, Ala. Brynn Anderson / AP Photo

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Expressing concern with the Obama administration’s efforts and actions to manage the Ebola crisis, U.S. states are doing some self-reflection to try and fine-tune, or, in some cases, establish their plans for how to deal with the virus should it spread domestically.

State officials from Missouri to New Jersey have been taking more stringent actions than the Obama administration’s plan to deal with the crisis by screening and monitoring travelers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea for symptoms when they land at one of a handful of U.S. gateway airports.

“The response from the federal government is unacceptable,” Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Republican, said during a special hearing he chaired last week, criticizing the lack of a federal travel ban.

Beyond the Obama administration, Schaefer and other Missouri Republicans have accused the administration of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon of being asleep at the switch during a recent Ebola scare in Jefferson City, the state capital.

Just a few miles from the offices of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, a man called in to a Jefferson City hospital claiming to have symptoms of the virus. Then, after the hospital began to question him, he hung up, Gail Vasterling, the department’s director, detailed during her testimony. It took several hours for local law enforcement to find the man, she said.

The man did not end up having the virus, but Schaefer, who chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, said Missouri’s response exposed gaps in the state’s ability to communicate with local officials and its plan to respond and quarantine someone suspected of having the virus.

“It was probably a favor to everybody that, in hindsight, that happened,” he said.

Missouri is not alone. There have been plenty of other Ebola false alarms around the nation.

Schaefer, like a growing number of local officials across the country, said Missouri should be more focused on preventing a case of Ebola from showing up in the first place. He suggested adding additional restrictions, screening and monitoring for travelers in Missouri who have been to the West African countries struggling to manage the virus. As many as eight states—including Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Virginia—have imposed some sort of travel restrictions for people who have visited the three hardest-hit countries.  

Critics of strict travel quarantines, including many respected public health officials, say they do more harm than good and may deter volunteer doctors, nurses and other medical personnel from traveling to West Africa to tend to the out-of-control Ebola crisis there.

New Jersey and New York have imposed some of the strictest quarantine requirements. If a resident there has had direct with an Ebola patient, they would be quarantined at home for three weeks. If they live outside New Jersey or New York, those states would find a place to quarantine them locally or take them home.

This week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie faced criticism for his controversial quarantine of Kaci Hickox, a nurse from Maine who had returned to the country over the weekend after working from West Africa. Despite her protests upon her arrival at Newark Liberty International Airport, Hickox was quarantined in a plastic tent at a nearby hospital.

While campaigning with Republican Gov. Rick Scott in Florida, Christie defended his decision.

“If you are symptomatic, you will be quarantined in a hospital in New Jersey until we can find out whether you have the virus or not,” he said. “She was symptomatic. She had a fever. She was sent to University Hospital. The CDC thought it was a serious enough situation that they ordered an Ebola test. The test came back. It was negative. We waited 24 hours until she had no further symptoms and today she’s on her way home.”

(ABC Health News)

There has some dispute over whether Hickox was actually exhibiting symptoms. Now at home in Maine, the nurse is considering suing New Jersey and her home state over their quarantine policies and told ABC News’ “Good Morning America” on Wednesday that she has been “completely asymptomatic since I’ve been here.

A state health commissioner in Maine wants Hickox to remain quarantined and would “pursue appropriate authority to ensure” a quarantine, according to Advance Media in New Jersey.

In additional public comments, Christie said that more states are implementing the mandatory quarantine and it is his belief that “this is going to become a national policy eventually.”

In the face of intense criticism, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this week stepped back a bit from his initially hard position on his state’s quarantine plans.

Back in Missouri, a state with two international airports, no such mandatory quarantine has yet been put in place. A spokesman for Nixon would not say Tuesday whether it was something the governor was considering. For now, the state has established an Ebola testing lab and local officials have been meeting to review their plans for response.

To date, only two people—both nurses who were treating Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national who had traveled to Dallas—have contracted Ebola inside the United States. The two were infected while treating the man when his symptoms were most extreme.

Earlier this month, Missouri’s attorney general moved to block a St. Louis-based company from handling or transporting the waste produced by an Ebola patient. The company had received a permit to treat the waste produced by the Dallas patient.

Eli Yokley is editor of PoliticMo, a Missouri political news website. He is a regular contributor to the Joplin Globe and St. Louis Business Journal. He is based in Columbia, Missouri.


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