Defense Civilians May Retreat from Ebola Quarantine

By Lisa A. Weder

Fifty-five military defense civilians are engaging in the fight against Ebola in Liberia as of October 31, 2014, and may choose exemption from being quarantined when returning from West Africa, according to the Pentagon. With the recent quarantine battle between a Maine nurse, Kaci Hickox, and the Maine District Court, how is this possible?

Civilian employees returning from Ebola response missions in West Africa will not be subjected to the same 21-day “monitoring” imposed on returning U.S. military members or to the same automatic quarantine methods imposed by some states, such as New Jersey or Illinois, on anyone returning from Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Many of the civilian employees are engineers and workers who are building Ebola treatment centers. Before returning to the United States, the employees must, instead, choose between “civil health guidelines or the stricter military regimen.” These civil guidelines are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines; the military regimen involves isolation for 21 days at a military home base.

During a Department of Defense (DOD) briefing on October 31, 2014, the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby, stated to the press the two quarantine options for civilian employees:

Option one: Active monitoring and return to normal activities. Under this option, DOD civilian employees will comply with guidance from the CDC, state, and local public health authorities unless otherwise directed. This includes returning to normal work duties, routines, and life activities consistent with that guidance. DOD components will comply with active monitoring guidance in this memorandum, to include twice-daily temperature checks.

Option two: To voluntarily participate in military-controlled monitoring. Under this option, DOD components will allow civilian employees to voluntarily participate in the same control procedures that military personnel will be undergoing as established … .

The question was posed to Admiral Kirby whether these civilians had to stay inside of their homes, to which Kirby responded that they did not; they could stay “in the area” of their homes. Further, according to Kirby, the DOD could not legally force civilian employees to follow the military’s guidelines.

How is it that the U.S. military would allow potentially exposed individuals to be out in public, when the states of New Jersey and Maine initially forced Kaci Hickox to stay inside her home after her arrival in New Jersey from Sierra Leone? In defense of Hickox’s immediate quarantine, Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) said, “I don’t believe when you’re dealing with something as serious as this [Ebola] that you can count on a voluntary system.”

The uproar over Dr. Craig Spencer who, after having treated Ebola patients in Africa returned to New York and used the public subway system, visited restaurants and a bowling alley, reflected the public’s opinion that anyone returning from Ebola-affected countries should head straight to a hospital for testing and possible quarantine. Similarly, there is much public anger over Kaci Hickox’s defiance of New Jersey’s and Maine’s orders to self-quarantine for 21 days. However, to date, there hasn’t been much of a skirmish over the DOD’s option one policy.

It seems the public has developed a stigma against the health care workers who have aided Ebola patients, forgetting that they are putting their lives on the line just as much as the military does. Should any of the military civilian employees contract Ebola, will the public turn on them for doing good deeds for the DOD?