In October 2014, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made headlines after quarantining Maine nurse who returned from Sierra Leone after treating Ebola-infected patients, Kaci Hickox, who was put in an isolation tent at Newark University Hospital for 2 1/2 days despite having no symptoms of the disease.

This move, as experts like Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) noted, was not grounded on scientific evidence and could undermine efforts to curb the epidemic at its source.

Image/Donkey Hotey and CDC
Image/Donkey Hotey and CDC

Hickox’s isolation is the result of a new policy endorsed last week by Govs. Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo (D) of New York, who announced new guidelines requiring 21-day quarantines for those arriving from West Africa – whether they’re showing symptoms or not.

Hickox told Meet the Press host, Chuck Todd, “When Gov. Christie stated that it was an abundance of caution, which is his reasoning for putting health care workers in a sort of quarantine for three weeks, it was really an abundance of politics,” she told Chuck Todd. “And I think all of the scientific and medical and public health community agrees with me on that statement.”

Hickox went on to tell host Chuck Todd, “We don’t know … everything in the world. But we know a lot about Ebola,” Hickox said. “We have been researching this disease for 38 years, since its first appearance in Africa. And we know how the infection is transmitted from person to person. And we know that it’s not transmitted from someone who is asymptomatic, as I am and many other aid workers will be when they return.”

This topic reappeared during the Republican Presidential Debate Saturday night but was overshadowed by criticisms of Marco Rubio’s repetitive, spoon-fed lines.

On the heels of a large Zika virus epidemic spreading throughout the Caribbean and Latin America and the following question was directed to Gov Christie by ABC News debate moderator, Martha Raddatz:

“Governor Christie, earlier this week, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus a global emergency. The same kind of mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus in Latin America are found here in the United States, and the virus has been linked to severe birth defects.

“Governor Christie, at the peak of the Ebola outbreak in west Africa, you ordered an American nurse who landed at Newark Airport be detained and quarantined. As fear spreads now of the Zika virus and with the Rio Olympics just months away, is there a scenario where you would quarantine people traveling back from Brazil to prevent the spread in the United States?

Christie responded, “You bet I would. And the fact is that because I took strong action to make sure that anyone who was showing symptoms — remember what happened with that nurse. She was showing symptoms and coming back from a place that had the Ebola virus active and she had been treating patients. This was not just some — like, we picked up her just for the heck of it, alright?

“We did it because she was showing symptoms (this contradicts numerous reports and Ms. Hickox’s own account in her Op-Ed), and the fact is that’s the way we should make these decision. You make these decisions based upon the symptoms, the medicine, and the law. We quarantined her, she turned out to test negative ultimately after 48 hours, and we released her back to the State of Maine.”

Outbreak News Today reached out to an infectious disease expert for comment on Christie’s answer. Associate Professor at Kent State University College of Public Health, Tara Smith, PhD made the following statement by email:

It’s disappointing that Christie didn’t learn anything from his debacle of a quarantine mandate over Ebola. As up to 80% of those infected with Zika don’t show symptoms, a better public health measure for returning travelers would be to advise them to wear mosquito repellent while outdoors, thereby minimizing any potential for disease transmission to mosquito vectors.

The same question was posed to Republican hopeful and retired neurosurgeon, Dr. Ben Carson, who responded more lucidly: “Do we quarantine people? If we have evidence that they are infected, and that there is evidence that that infection can spread by something that they’re doing, yes.

But, just willy-nilly going out and quarantining a bunch of people because they’ve been to Brazil, I don’t believe that that’s going to work. What we really need to be thinking about is how do we get this disease under control?”

Robert Herriman is a microbiologist, Editor-in-Chief of Outbreak News Today and host of the talk radio program, Outbreak News This Week 

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