Brewer native Sheila Davis is a nurse, like Kaci Hickox. She, too, just returned home after responding to the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, showing no symptoms of the virus.
But Davis, who lives in Boston, has not been instructed to remain inside her home. The nurse practitioner traveled to Washington, D.C., Wednesday morning for a national meeting of health care professionals working to fight the Ebola epidemic at its source in West Africa. President Barack Obama said he plans to meet with the group at the White House.
Davis fears measures imposed by states, including Maine, to quarantine doctors and nurses returning from West Africa will deter potential volunteers, hampering efforts to halt the outbreak at its heart.
“Why this is causing so much anxiety is that — because it’s not really being based on the current science — it’s unclear what could be next,” she said.
Federal health officials and infectious disease experts have criticized state measures that exceed U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. U.S. CDC Director Tom Frieden has called for the isolation of people who are at the highest risk for Ebola infection but said the majority of medical workers returning from the three African nations at the center of the epidemic — Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea — would require daily monitoring without isolation.
Many Americans mistrust federal health officials in the wake of missteps at a Texas hospital, where an Ebola patient infected two nurses who have since recovered. A New York City doctor diagnosed with Ebola after returning from West Africa jogged around his Harlem neighborhood, dined out and went bowling before developing a fever. He is now isolated and undergoing treatment at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York.
Health officials have stressed the virus can’t spread to others unless symptoms are present.
The CDC’s guidelines are grounded in solid research conducted by numerous scientists, including at the World Health Organization, Davis said.
“It’s not just the U.S. making this up,” Davis said. “This is all based on global science and global recommendations. I hope people can realize that and take that to heart.”
In a Monday editorial, the New England Journal of Medicine criticized mandatory quarantines for health care workers returning from West Africa as “unfair and unwise.” Such measures equate to “driving a carpet tack with a sledgehammer: it gets the job done but overall is more destructive than beneficial,” the editorial said.
Public health officials in Maine and several other states contend that in-home quarantines for individuals exposed to Ebola amount to common-sense measures necessary to protect the public. The U.S. Army announced it has started isolating soldiers returning from West Africa at a base in northeastern Italy, even though they showed no symptoms of infection and were not believed to have been exposed to the virus.
Unlike Hickox, Davis did not provide hands-on care to Ebola patients, instead organizing the Ebola response for Partners In Health, a Boston international aid organization. News of the quarantines in the U.S. has complicated the nonprofit’s recruitment efforts, with potential volunteers worrying about the reception they would face when returning home, Davis said.
If Hickox or any other health worker shows symptoms of Ebola or faced high-risk exposure to the virus, quarantines are appropriate, she said. Individuals directly exposed to the bodily fluids of an infected Ebola patient who showed symptoms would be deemed at high risk under federal health guidelines.
“I certainly can understand people’s fear, but I think what we have to do is make sure that people get the most accurate information,” Davis said.
Davis said federal health officials treated her respectfully and professionally upon her arrival at the Boston airport on Sunday, while Hickox described a “frenzy of disorganization” after landing in Newark, New Jersey, two days earlier. CDC staff asked Davis a series of questions and took her temperature before sending her on her way with a packet of information, laying out how to track her symptoms and temperature for 21 days. The local public health department was alerted to her arrival and called her to follow up, she said.
“I’m monitored twice a day,” Davis said. “I get called by Boston public health twice a day and report my temperature.”
Concerns have arisen that health care workers returning from West Africa might fail to report symptoms of Ebola for fear of quarantine. But Davis argued those individuals are among the most likely to seek immediate medical care.
“There is nobody who ever has seen the true effects of Ebola who would ever hide this,” she said.
Davis plans to return to West Africa in mid-November.
Reuters contributed to this report.