Balancing Public Health and Individual Rights: Ebola Quarantine and Isolation Debate

October 27th, 2014 by Trudy Henson

Over the weekend, the debate dominated headlines: should states enact a policy for quarantining and isolating individuals potentially exposed to Ebola? New York, New Jersey, and Illinois had already answered “yes”; others, including President Obama, and the Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, argued “no,” citing among other concerns, “unintended consequences.”

At the center of the debate was Kaci Hickox, a nurse who returned from West Africa and was quarantined under New Jersey orders. Over the weekend, she described her quarantine as inhumane, and today she has been released to continue her quarantine in her own home. But the question remains, particularly as states prepare for the potential of more Ebola cases: does a quarantine/isolation policy protect the public health, or does it tread on individual rights?

The answer is more nuanced than a simple yes or no. No doubt, governors of the aforementioned states, with dense populations reliant on public transportation, are thinking of the difficulty and resource intensity of contact tracing for more than one or two people, such as was already necessary in New York, Ohio, and Texas. And governors and elected officials do face a delicate balance: protecting public health and respecting the rights of citizens. Quarantine and isolation policies can do both. However, such policies require careful thought and consideration prior to implementation, and clear communication during. Those subject to the policies—our citizens—should be at the forefront of a state’s policy planning—citizens’ physical and mental health and comfort; their needs; and their concerns—from family constraints to dietary considerations. Although recent examples show citizens may not respect voluntary quarantines, mandatory quarantines are far more likely to succeed if they are tailored as much as possible, and implemented in a way that maintains respect, personal comfort, and individual privacy.

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