Obama's Ebola statement a logical and public health travesty

The following question was put to President Obama after he delivered his Ebola statement on October 28:

Are you concerned, sir, that there might be some confusion between the quarantine rules used by the military and used by health care workers and by some states?

The question was asked because the administration still refuses to require 21-day quarantines for anyone entering the U.S. who had contact with Ebola patients or had been in Ebola-ravaged countries – in other words, high-risk individuals – whereas the Pentagon has ordered anyone serving in the hot zone to undergo mandatory 21-day quarantines as they rotate out of the region, and governors in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Florida, Maryland, and Virginia now require in their states, to varying degrees, mandatory 21-day quarantines and mandatory monitoring of symptoms. 

Obama responded that the military is in a different situation from that of civilian volunteers because (1) they are not treating patients, and (2) they are not there voluntarily.  Does this make any sense?  While our soldiers might not be treating patients, they are still in the hot zone and have the potential to be exposed to individuals who might be infected.  The Pentagon understandably doesn’t want its soldiers to hop on a plane when finished and return to wherever they are stationed with the potential to spread a deadly disease to co-workers and families.  But here’s where this gets really convoluted:  those who are treating patients – the civilian volunteers –  are at an even higher risk of contracting Ebola than anyone else (over 200 health care workers, including doctors and nurses, have died treating Ebola), yet Obama doesn’t see the need to quarantine them upon their return, even though logic dictates otherwise. 

Although civilian volunteers are free to travel at will, once they are exposed to a deadly disease that poses an existential threat to our survival, when they arrive home, they must forfeit 21 days of their liberty for the greater good.  Civilians who are in the hot zone should be subject to government-required quarantines just as the military is.  What the president fails to understand is that military personnel are being quarantined not simply because they are in the military and subject to the whim of the commander-in-chief or the direction of the Pentagon.  They are required to undergo quarantining not because they are not treating patients, or because they are not voluntary.  They are subject to quarantines because of a palpable risk that they might have been exposed to Ebola working in the hot zone, and the only way to be certain is to endure isolation for the 21-day incubation period.   

Not only does the same hold true for civilian volunteers, but because they deal directly with patients known to be infected, they are at an even higher risk and pose an even greater threat to our population when arriving back in the U.S.  But Obama suggests that volunteering in an Ebola hot zone is something so special and so noble, so far above anything our military does, that those individual acts of bravery cannot be spoiled by isolation upon their return – even when it is to protect the general population.    

No one questions the bravery of our men and women on the front lines of this battle, whether in fatigues or scrubs.  But Ebola does not discriminate between a nurse rendering aid out of the goodness of her heart and a soldier erecting medical facilities out of a sense of duty to his commander-in-chief.  If it can invade your body, it will – whether you have had contact with an infected patient or a bystander, whether your cause is noble or duty-driven, whether you are a doctor or an engineer, whether you are a civilian volunteer or a volunteer in the armed services.         

What is so infuriating, aside from his twisted logic, is that Obama suggests that civilian volunteers are the only courageous ones taking time from their families to use their expertise for a noble cause, as if our military volunteers do not have families they are leaving behind, using their expertise for an equally  noble cause, and courageously walking headfirst into the fire:

When we have volunteers who are taking time out from their families, from their loved ones and so forth, to go over there because they have very particular expertise to tackle a very difficult job, we want to make sure that when they come back, that we are prudent, that we are making sure that they are not at risk themselves or at risk of spreading the disease.  But we don’t want to do things that aren’t based on science and best practices because, if we do, then we’re just putting another barrier on somebody who’s already doing really important work on our behalf.

In The World According to Obama, it’s okay to put up a barrier for someone in the military who might have been exposed to Ebola-infected individuals, but not for a civilian volunteer who most definitely was treating and therefore unequivocally exposed to Ebola-infected patients.  In Obama’s world, the civilian volunteer is “doing really important work on our behalf.”  And what about the soldiers?  What are they – chopped liver?  Aren’t they working on our behalf, too? 

What Obama fails to acknowledge is that both civilian and military volunteers deployed to Ebola-stricken nations are at high risk for exposure to Ebola, and both risk spreading the disease upon their return.  The difference is the Pentagon has gone beyond the president and his CDC pals to require mandatory quarantining for the duration of the incubation period, as have some volunteer organizations like Samaritan’s Purse.  But the government isn’t requiring this of any civilian volunteers – out of some  misplaced concern that returnees might suffer some kind of indignation at being quarantined, or their bravery somehow diminished, or their risk factor somehow stigmatized,  as Samantha Power alluded the other day when, in considering the quarantine question, she responded, “The last thing we want is to stigmatize people.”

Maybe that’s what this is all about.  Do I hear AIDS, anyone?

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