Texas health officials are evaluating visitors from Ebola outbreak countries on a case-by-case basis and could use their authority, if necessary, to force into quarantine anyone at risk of spreading the disease, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.
They were saved from making a potentially painful decision Wednesday when a Texas nurse landed in Austin after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. She voluntarily agreed to isolate herself for three weeks — the time it takes for symptoms to emerge — after she was met at the airport by Department of State Health Services Commissioner Dr. David Lakey, spokeswoman Carrie Williams said.
Lakey was contacted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was alerted to the nurse by an airport that screens travelers from West Africa, Williams said. The CDC allowed her to fly to Austin because she had no Ebola symptoms and so wasn’t contagious, Williams said.
Austin airport officials said they weren’t told about the nurse and didn’t know about her connections, said spokesman Jason Zielinski. Austin-Bergstrom International Airport isn’t one of the five U.S. airports that receive flights from West Africa and screen travelers.
“She was agreeable to staying home,” Williams said. “This allows us to err on the side of the caution … and if symptoms emerge at home, we quickly know who she had contact with.”
The nurse is allowed to have visitors, Williams said.
Her agreed-to isolation is in contrast with nurse Kaci Hickox who arrived in New Jersey from treating Ebola patients in West Africa and was quarantined over the weekend there against her will. She hired lawyers, and New Jersey let her go home to Maine, where officials also want her quarantined. Hickox told reporters she won’t agree to that.
If Maine doesn’t lift her quarantine order by Thursday morning, she said, “I will go to court to attain my freedom.” That could be a test case of whether state quarantines are legal.
Hickox doesn’t have symptoms, but 21 days haven’t passed.
The nurse who arrived in Austin resides in Central Texas but doesn’t live in Travis County, according to the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department. Her county of residence and name aren’t being disclosed to protect her privacy, Williams said.
Quarantines are controversial because they pit an individual citizen’s rights against the rights of others. President Barack Obama raised concerns about mandatory quarantine, and the CDC issued new guidelines calling for returning health care workers to voluntarily isolate themselves for 21 days.
State and local health authorities can follow that guidance — or not.
Texas would consider a mandatory quarantine for someone who doesn’t have disease symptoms but is considered to be at high risk of acquiring the illness and spreading it, Williams said. Dr. Phil Huang, medical director of the Austin/Travis County health department, said he would consider that, too, and has quarantined people with tuberculosis, for example.
His department is monitoring a handful of non-health care workers who were in West Africa during the Ebola outbreak. Those people are considered low risk and are required to take their temperatures twice daily and report to the health department.
A health care worker might be asked to stay home for 21 days, or be quarantined, depending on their risk to others, Huang said. Also, a person who refused to comply with monitoring might be quarantined, he said. It all depends on their level of risk, he said.
“People going over there to treat Ebola patients are heroes,” Huang said. “They don’t want to infect anyone.”
Voluntary isolation “appears to be an ideal solution, and a solution that should be implemented nationwide,” said Bill Piatt, a constitutional law professor and expert on mandatory quarantine at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio. It “removes any government intrusion on constitutional rights because the people putting themselves in isolation are voluntarily waiving those rights.”
He commended the Central Texas nurse who arrived Wednesday. Her action “seems like a very unselfish thing to do and a very caring thing to do.”
He also supports the government’s right to order a quarantine, when necessary, he said.
A CBS News poll released Wednesday showed that 80 percent of Americans want people returning from West Africa to be quarantined until they are shown to be Ebola-free.