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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Ebola health care workers returning to the United States from Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea should be quarantined in their homes for 21 days even if they are asymptomatic of the disease.

Congress should mandate the quarantine rule nationwide rather than whining like children about the Executive Branch’s industrial scale ineptitude.


The health care workers should be compensated by the government for lost income. Ordinarily, the Constitution requires the government to pay just compensation for the taking of property or its equivalent for a public purpose. The quarantine would deprive health care workers of the opportunity to earn money for three weeks to promote the public health, safety and welfare. They should not suffer for playing Good Samaritan in West Africa to prevent Ebola from migrating here or elsewhere.

The proposed Ebola model for health care workers was adopted last Monday by the U.S. military. Every member of the its Ebola task force will be automatically quarantined upon their return to the United States from West Africa with no exceptions.

A 21-day home quarantine for health care personnel would encroach only modestly on individual liberty. Their reading, writing and communications with the outside world would be unimpaired. No heavy lifting would be required. True enough, many if not all might feel deprived at living in physical isolation for three weeks. No opera. No basketball games. No museums. No parties. No dining out.

But these types of privations are unalarming, not substantially different from camping in the wilderness for weeks or provisionally living like a monk. The certainty that the quarantine will lapse after 21 days diminishes any sense of despair or depression. Indeed, many if not most might have their spirits raised by the knowledge that remaining quarantined would be a selfless gesture to reassure others. Finally, the home quarantine would enable health care workers to receive immediate treatment and avoid endangering others if they became symptomatic with a fever, diarrhea, vomiting, acute headaches, or otherwise.

The case of New York health care worker Dr. Craig Spencer illustrates the benefit of an automatic 21-day home quarantine rule. He encountered Ebola working in Guinea for Doctors Without Borders. He returned to the United States asymptomatic, but became symptomatic later with a low-grade fever. He immediately reported the temperature rise, and was dispatched to Bellevue Hospital Center for isolation and treatment. His fiancee and two friends were placed in voluntary isolation.

But suppose Dr. Spencer acted with less alacrity, or had not recognized or realized his temperature climb? The number of persons he could have exposed to the Ebola danger in New York City when he was symptomatic could have been staggering. Why take that risk when a 21-day home quarantine would be a tiny price to pay?

President Obama preposterously asserts that brave and selfless heath care workers would refuse to travel to West Africa to treat Ebola patients if they knew a 21-day home quarantine awaited them upon returning to the United States. That assertion insults their character. If they are willing to confront the prospect of Ebola infection from patients that could prove lethal, they will not be daunted by a 21-day home quarantine. If Mr. Obama is worried about their morale, he should award them presidential medals of honor or some equivalent emblem for their service.

The 21-day home quarantine raises no serious constitutional question. The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the power of government to compel vaccinations or treatment for alcohol or drug addiction, and to detain the mentally ill or sex offenders who pose a threat to themselves or others. These encroachments on liberty dwarf the insubstantial impairments entailed by three weeks of physical isolation in the home.

Congress should display some backbone for a change.

For more information on Bruce Fein, visit brucefeinlaw.com


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