Different Ebola Quarantine Policies Send A Confusing Message
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
At the White House this afternoon press secretary Josh Earnest reached into American history when he was asked about conflicts between state and federal policies on Ebola.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
JOSH EARNEST: In some ways you can sort of take this up with James Madison, right? We have a federal system in this country in which states are given significant authority for governing their constituents. That is certainly true when it comes to public safety and public health.
SIEGEL: The confusion that Earnest attributed in part to founding father James Madison arose last Friday. That's when New York and New Jersey got out ahead of federal policy and required a 21-day quarantine for health workers returning from West Africa. Now the Centers for Disease Control has issued new guidelines and for more on those and this question of who has authority to do what, NPR's Tamara Keith joins us from the White House.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: First - the new CDC guidelines. What are they and how do they compare with what states have done on their own?
KEITH: They set up different levels of risk and different responses to those levels of risk. So for someone who's at high risk, they would be asked to voluntarily limit their movement - stay public transportation, don't go back to work. High risk is a pretty limited window though. It's a health worker, for example, who had been stuck by a needle while treating someone with Ebola - very high risk. The next level would be some risk and hat would be health workers returning from West Africa who haven't had a risk like that and have had protective gear worn properly. They would have a local public health official check with them twice a day, take their temperature, talk about their symptoms if they have any. And this is less stringent than what some governors have put into place and CDC director Thomas Frieden says states generally follow CDC guidelines, but he can't stop them from going further.
SIEGEL: Word was over the weekend that the White House put pressure on these governors to back away from their quarantine policies. Is that true?
KEITH: There certainly were conversations happening behind the scenes. The press secretary, Josh Earnest, wouldn't get into the details about those conversations, but he did say the nurse who had been quarantined in a tent at a hospital in New Jersey was being allowed to go to her home in Maine and self-quarantine there and he pointed to that as a sign of states and the federal government and the CDC all working together. New Jersey governor Chris Christie insists that this does not signal a policy change or bowing to pressure in any way.
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GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: Illinois has since adopted this policy so has now the state of Maryland. So I'm telling you guys, this is going to become a national policy eventually, eventually the CDC will come around. And remember - they were late to the game in Texas and we had people infected because of it.
KEITH: Maryland's policy is actually somewhat more nuanced than that and all of this just illustrates that there is now this patchwork of overlapping state, federal and local jurisdictions with different policies.
SIEGEL: Tamara, at the risk of sounding terribly cynical, I'll observe that we are just a week away from a big election. New York governor Andrew Cuomo is up for re-election. Chris Christie is often talked about as a presidential candidate in two years. How much does politics play in this?
KEITH: Yes, there are elections and politics could certainly be part of it, but at the more basic level I think we can chalk this up to populism and governors wanting to be seen as protecting citizens of their states. There's this guy who's come outside the White House a couple of times with big signs and a hazmat suit. The first sign said Stop The Flights. The second one said Quarantines Now. These messages fit easily on a sign. At the briefing today Josh Earnest said more than a dozen times that Ebola should be - Ebola policy should be driven by science. That doesn't fit on a sign.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Tam.
SIEGEL: That's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.
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