New York wants to encourage health workers to go Ebola zone

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York speaks at a press conference on Oct 23, 2014 in New York City. -- PHOTO: AFP
Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York speaks at a press conference on Oct 23, 2014 in New York City. -- PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (REUTERS/AFP) - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Sunday that the state wanted to encourage health workers to go to West Africa to treat Ebola patients, responding to concerns that new state rules on manadatory quarantines would keep doctors and nurses away from the stricken region.

"This is a war on a virus in West Africa," Cuomo said in a joint press confernce with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. "We are trying to balance aid to West Africa and protection and the public health of New Yorkers."

New York state on Sunday eased its rules for how those arriving from Ebola-stricken West Africa must be treated, ending a mandatory isolation period for people who had no contact with an infected patient.

New York, New Jersey and Illinois have drafted in measures that see health-care workers returning from West Africa - epicentre of the most deadly Ebola outbreak on record - quarantined for three weeks, while a fourth US state, Florida, has ordered twice-daily monitoring during that period.

But under pressure from the White House, where officials believe these rules could deter health workers from helping fight the epidemic in West Africa, Mr Andrew Cuomo rushed to ease his state's Ebola-clearance procedures.

Mr Cuomo said late Sunday that there would no longer be a blanket quarantine procedure from all people entering the state from affected countries in West Africa.

Instead, if someone arrives from an affected area with no symptoms and without having had direct contact with people infected with Ebola, no home confinement will be required. Meanwhile health officials will monitor these travelers twice daily for temperature and other symptoms until the 21-day incubation period has run out.

For those who have had contact with Ebola-infected people in West Africa but are not showing symptoms themselves, Mr Cuomo said his state now will require them to be confined to home for three weeks.

Health Department officials will transport them and monitor their health daily throughout the isolation period, he explained.

Earlier, Mr de Blasio sounded defiant as he gave no indication he planned to bow to White House pressure.

Ms Kaci Hickox, who became the first American health worker isolated under the new quarantine orders on Friday, claims she was made to feel like a criminal and that her compulsory quarantining was "inhumane".

Mr de Blasio attempted to quell the firestorm over Ms Hickox's outspoken remarks, in which she hit out at officials' attitude towards her from the moment she landed at Newark International Airport in New Jersey on Friday.

"This hero was treated with disrespect, was treated with a sense that she had done something wrong, when she hadn't; was not given a clear direction," Mr de Blasio told a press conference.

"We owe her better than that and all the people better than that." Health authorities have also expressed concern that the strict new rules will discourage badly needed health workers from volunteering in West Africa, where more than 4,900 people have already died of the hemorrhagic Ebola virus.

US President Barack Obama's administration has urged the governors of New York and New Jersey to reverse the quarantine rules, The New York Times reported.

After Mr Obama's meeting with his public health and national security aides on Sunday, the White House said in a statement their moves were not the best choices.

US measures, it said, "must recognise that health care workers are an indispensable element of our effort to lead the international community to contain and ultimately end this outbreak at its source, and should be crafted so as not to unnecessarily discourage those workers from serving".

There have been nine cases of Ebola in the United States so far, most among health workers who volunteered in Africa, with only one death.

Ms Hickox, who was helping treat patients in hard-hit Sierra Leone before her return to the United States, has been isolated outside the main hospital building.

She has only been allowed to wear paper scrubs, and the tent is equipped with just a hospital bed, a non-flush chemical toilet and no shower.

On Saturday, she wrote a scathing assessment of her experience.

"I feel like my basic human rights have been violated," she told CNN's State Of The Union show, insisting she was not contagious because she has shown no symptoms and tested negative for the disease.

"To put me in prison... is just inhumane."

Some health experts have sided with Ms Hickox.

"The best way to protect us is to stop (the outbreak) in Africa, and one of the best ways to stop it in Africa is to get health workers who are going there and helping them with their problem," National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci told CNN.

"When they come back, they need to be treated in a way that doesn't disincentivise them from going there."

His comments came as the US envoy to the United Nations, Ms Samantha Power, worried the new quarantine policies were "haphazard and not well thought out".

"We cannot take measures here that are going to impact our ability to flood the zone" with health workers, said Ms Power, as she began a tour of West African nations struggling with the disease.

"We have to find the right balance between addressing the legitimate fears that people have and encouraging and incentivising these heroes."

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