Last month I wrote about employers’ potential liability for Ebola in the workplace. Now state governments are seeking to quarantine citizens to protect against the possibility of a health epidemic. An inherent conflict exists between individual freedoms and the government’s interest to protect public health. Can the government quarantine an individual? What happens if the individual ignores the directive? We got some answers to these questions today.
Even though she tested negative for Ebola and is not showing any symptoms, a nurse returning from West Africa to treat Ebola patients was ordered quarantined by both New Jersey and Maine. The nurse is now threatening to sue for what she calls a violation of her “basic human rights.” Earlier today Maine asked a court to order the nurse quarantined because she violated the state’s quarantine order by riding her bike in public.
The quarantine orders from the governors of New Jersey and Maine appear to be a reaction to the CDC’s missteps in Dallas, especially allowing a nurse who had treated “patient zero” to fly when the nurse told the CDC she had a fever. At a hearing today, the Maine court refused to quarantine the nurse, but ordered her to self-monitor, coordinate all travel with public officials, and immediately notify officials of any symptoms.
The court’s decision is spot on. I’m a proponent for protecting the public health, and the government should do everything to ensure that an Ebola “outbreak” doesn’t occur in this country. Yet, here both sides should use some common sense. Maine doesn’t need to lock this nurse in her home for 21 days, especially when she’s not showing any symptoms and tested negative for the virus. The nurse should be allowed to go out in public, but she should take steps to minimize her interaction with people (like yesterday when she rode her bike on a dirt path to avoid coming in contact with people) and should take other steps to regularly monitor her condition so that, if she does show symptoms, she can be immediately treated and isolated from the public.
Individual rights and community concerns can and should be reasonably balanced, particularly when there is little to no basis for real concern.