By Dennis Thompson
MONDAY, Oct. 27, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Faced with pressure from the White House and criticism from infectious-disease experts, the governors of New York and New Jersey have eased their tough quarantine measures that required all medical workers returning from West Africa who had contact with Ebola patients to be forced into isolation.
Andrew Cuomo of New York and Chris Christie of New Jersey said late Sunday night that their policies now allow medical workers to be confined in their homes while receiving twice-a-day monitoring from health officials.
On Friday, both governors had announced mandatory 21-day quarantines for health care workers returning from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the three countries ravaged by the worst Ebola outbreak in history.
Obama administration officials and much of the U.S. medical community criticized the mandatory quarantines. They said the quarantines would discourage doctors, nurses and other health professionals from traveling to West Africa to combat the epidemic that has infected more than 10,000 people and claimed more than 4,900 lives.
Kaci Hickox, a nurse from Maine, returned from Sierra Leone and was quarantined Friday in New Jersey under the new measures. Over the weekend, she became the face of medical professionals opposed to the quarantines. Despite having no symptoms, she was kept under quarantine at a hospital in New Jersey, confined to a tent equipped with a portable toilet and no shower.
Monday morning, Christie announced that Hickox would be allowed to return to Maine, where it will be up to local health officials to decide how they will monitor the 33-year-old woman to be sure she isn't infected with Ebola, The New York Times reported.
The initial quarantine measures, which exceeded current federal guidelines, meant that health care workers who had contact with Ebola patients would be tested and kept in quarantine for 21 days, the longest known length of incubation of the Ebola virus.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Sunday that he did not favor such a quarantine because it could discourage health workers from going to West Africa to help battle the Ebola outbreak, the Associated Press reported.
"The best way to protect us is to stop the epidemic in Africa, and we need those health care workers so we do not want to put them in a position where it makes it very, very uncomfortable for them to even volunteer to go," Fauci said.
He added that self-monitoring works as well as a quarantine because people infected with Ebola don't become contagious until they start showing symptoms, typically a fever. Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.
The decision to impose mandatory quarantines in New York and New Jersey came a day after Dr. Craig Spencer, a New York City doctor who recently returned from West Africa, tested positive for Ebola.
Spencer, 33, remains at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, in serious but stable condition. Hospital officials said Sunday that he looked better than he did the day before, and tolerated a plasma treatment well, the AP reported.
Spencer had been working with the medical aid agency Doctors Without Borders, helping to treat Ebola patients in Guinea.
According to the Times, Spencer had returned to New York City on Oct. 14, and by Oct. 23 had developed a 100.3-degree fever. He immediately alerted Doctors Without Borders. Emergency medical workers in full personal protective gear transported him from his Manhattan apartment to an isolation unit at Bellevue Hospital.
Three people he had contact with in recent days -- two friends and his fiancee -- have been placed in isolation.
On Oct. 21, Spencer visited a park in Manhattan and ate at a restaurant in the West Village section of the city. On Oct. 22, he traveled on two subway lines from Manhattan to Brooklyn, visited a bowling alley there and then took a taxi back to Manhattan.
In an article published Saturday in the Dallas Morning News, Hickox described her experience after arriving Friday at Newark Liberty International Airport, which she called "a frenzy of disorganization, fear and, most frightening, quarantine."
"We need more health care workers to help fight the epidemic in West Africa," she said. "The U.S. must treat returning health care workers with dignity and humanity."