Ebola: The States Step Up

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

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A problem of the Obama administration’s own making is how we would characterize the concerns it has expressed to Governors Cuomo and Christie over their hard line on Ebola. At almost every turn the administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and the president have underestimated and under-informed the American public. This started with the first press conference of the CDC’s director, Dr. Thos. Frieden, the one where the nation’s top epidemiologist vowed the disease would be stopped in its tracks. The CDC at first seemed more worried about panic than the disease itself.

The next thing Americans discovered was that America’s first Ebola patient had all sorts of contacts that could have — though they have not yet — produced many new cases. Meantime a doctor who has now come down with the virus had been riding around the subways of New York, eating in a restaurant and going bowling, after entering the country without so much as a howdy-do, though he’d been treating Ebola patients in West Africa. If the federal government is going to dawdle, why should governors not go to the barricades?

All this is taking place amid contretemps over a nurse who is reported by the New York Times to be planning a legal challenge to her having been placed in quarantine when she entered America from Sierra Leone. The nurse, Kaci Hickox, is being quarantined at New Jersey. She is unhappy with the way she has been treated in New Jersey. We’ll leave that to the courts, though it would surprise us if the judges did much second-guessing of the authorities powers to quarantine a nurse returning from the front line of an epidemic with a mortality rate on the order of 50%.

New Jersey is the authority that quarantined the nurse who entered from Sierrra Leone. The CDC, which is also reviewing its role, claims authority under the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution. It insists it is “authorized to detain, medically examine, and release persons arriving into the United States and traveling between states who are suspected of carrying these communicable diseases.” It says that as part of its federal authority it “routinely monitors persons arriving at U.S. land border crossings and passengers and crew arriving at U.S. ports of entry for signs or symptoms of communicable diseases.”

Were suspicions of the health authorizes reasonable in respect of Nurse Hickox? Who wants to second guess them? Would they bring the doughty nurse into open court to testify? Viruses are like birds. They pose all sorts of tricky questions under the Constitution. In the case of birds, they are questions like, which state owns them? In the case of viruses, how in blazes are the normal rights of due process supposed to be dealt with in a situation where a single sneeze can spread death?

We comprehend that Ebola amounts to small beans compared to, say, the influenza that, between 1918 and 1920, infected something like half a billion people and killed 5% of the world’s population. The World Health Organization reckons that as recently as 2012 there were as many as 670,000 deaths from Malaria, most of them at, in Africa, the same continent whence comes Ebola. Even small epidemics, like Polio, which killed fewer than 4,000 Americans in its worst year, can instill vast fear. Governor Cuomo adjusted his hardline slightly Sunday evening, agreeing to allow home quarnatine for persons not showing symptoms. Until the federal authorities get ahead of the public, though, the states are going to assert their own powers to deal with one of history’s most gruesome germs.

________

New Jersey was the authority that quarantined the nurse who entered from Sierra Leone. This editorial was updated to clarify that point.


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