STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The feeling of crisis over Ebola has faded, but it's still not entirely clear how this country would handle the next fear-inducing virus. Two months ago, a dramatic argument erupted over how to treat health care workers returning from Ebola-stricken countries to New York and New Jersey. Those states quickly imposed mandatory quarantines which went beyond federal guidelines. And there is still confusion over whose word should rule. NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Sara Back is not the kind of person to turn down a tough assignment. She's a nurse practitioner at a public hospital in the Bronx. This month, she's going to Sierra Leone to work with Ebola patients.
SARA BACK: I am beyond ready.
ROSE: Back is passionate about treating patients suffering from the deadly disease. What she is not so keen on is the mandatory 21-day quarantine she faces when she gets home.
BACK: Yeah, it's definitely a pain in the tush. I mean, jokingly my colleagues say, well, we'll see you in, like, June.
ROSE: It's been just over two months since New York and New Jersey rushed in the strictest Ebola travel rules in the nation. For a lot of people, it was scary moment. New York City had just diagnosed its first case of Ebola - Dr. Craig Spencer. Then nurse Kaci Hickox was held against her will, first at the Newark airport, then in a tent outside a hospital. Here's Hickox on NBC's "Today Show."
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KACI HICKOX: If you're going to put a policy like that in place that impedes on my civil rights, then you need to have the administrative details worked out before you start detaining me in an airport for no reason.
ROSE: New Jersey officials said Hickox was running a high fever, which she denied. A few days later, she was allowed to go home to Maine. After she was released, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie tried to clarify the state's rules.
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GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: There's been no reversal or change in any way of our policy or approach. People are symptomatic, they go in a hospital. If they live in New Jersey, they get quarantined at home. And if they don't, and they're not symptomatic, then we set up quarantine for them out of state.
ROSE: This is where it starts to get confusing - in-state this, out-of-state that. Here's how state officials in New Jersey and New York explain the rules today. A health care worker who treated Ebola patients can serve her mandatory quarantine at home in New Jersey or New York. But if you don't live in those states and you're not symptomatic, you can pass through the airport and go back to where you live. But that is not how some international aid groups are interpreting the rules.
MARGARET AGUIRRE: We don't want people to be quarantined unnecessarily.
ROSE: Margaret Aguirre is with the International Medical Corps in Los Angeles. Her group has been telling returning health care workers to avoid JFK and Newark airports so that they don't wind up like Kaci Hickox.
AGUIRRE: We have not gotten any different information that anything has changed. So we will continue to route people the way we've been routing them.
ROSE: That is not the only aid group that's been avoiding New York and New Jersey. Franklin Graham is the president of Samaritan's Purse.
FRANKLIN GRAHAM: We're having to make sure that our people come back from Liberia don't go through those two states. We've got to bring them in some other way. Get them into Washington through Dulles or Atlanta - some place like that.
ROSE: So you're really avoiding New York and New Jersey then?
AGUIRRE: Oh, you have to. No question.
ROSE: Other states and municipalities have adopted a patchwork of regulations, many of which go beyond what's recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC says most returning health care workers should monitor themselves for 21 days, but they don't need to be isolated unless they start showing symptoms. If you're having trouble keeping all these rules straight, you are not alone.
LAWRENCE GOSTIN: I think there's a ton of confusion about this.
ROSE: Lawrence Gostin is a quarantine expert at Georgetown Law school and a critic of mandatory quarantines.
GOSTIN: It was not just confusing, it was a message that, in a way, was a significant deterrent to health workers flying both to and from the region.
ROSE: The mandatory quarantine rules do seem to be popular with the public, at least in New Jersey. Patrick Murray is a pollster at Monmouth University. He says more than half the people he surveyed approve of Governor Christie's response to Ebola.
PATRICK MURRAY: I think people were feeling that they didn't know what was going on, and they just wanted somebody to take a real strong action. So, you know, Governor Christie's action was pretty much exactly what the doctor ordered in political terms.
ROSE: For all the drama surrounding New York and New Jersey quarantine rules, they haven't actually been used much. State health officials in New York say only a handful of returning health care workers have been quarantined at home. In New Jersey, since Kaci Hickox, that number is zero. Lawrence Gostin at Georgetown thinks the level of public concern has changed.
GOSTIN: The temperature has dropped precipitously. And it's been quite clear that there is not going to be an epidemic in the United States, that we do have it under control and that these quarantines are not helpful.
ROSE: But Gostin concedes that the mandatory quarantine rules may be here to stay. Now that Ebola no longer feels like a crisis in this country, he says many Americans have the sense that the epidemic is under control in West Africa, too. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
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