In the first use of the state’s tough Ebola protocols, the Connecticut Department of Public Health said late Wednesday that it had placed under quarantine nine individuals who have traveled to West Africa but are symptom-free.
“The people under quarantine are not sick and do not present a risk to public health,” said health department spokesman William Gerrish. “The individuals will be in quarantine for 21 days, during which time they will be actively monitored by public health officials.”
Gerrish said the department reviews each case of travel from West Africa and determines, “based upon the person’s travel history and potential exposures, the necessary steps to protect the public’s health.”
The Connecticut chapter of the ACLU said it would question the health department about the Malloy administration’s quarantine policy.
“We’re concerned about the potential for infringement of individual rights without reasonable cause, and we’re evaluating the state’s legal authority to quarantine people based only on their travel histories,” said Connecticut ACLU legal director Sandra Staub. “We will be asking the state Department of Public Health to explain exactly how it will balance those rights against public health concerns.”
Andrew Doba, communications director for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, said the administration would be happy to work with the ACLU. “Our goal is to make sure that we protect both an individual’s rights and their health. These do not have to be mutually exclusive goals,” he said.
Six of those under quarantine are a West African family in West Haven who hoped to establish residency in Connecticut, said West Haven Director of Health Maureen Lillis.
To comply with a directive from the health department, Lillis said she asked the family to voluntarily quarantine themselves at a friend’s house. They did so and have been quarantined since Oct. 18. An official quarantine order was received by Lillis this week.
The identities of the others under quarantine are not known.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeps tightening its Ebola protocols, but it has not adopted Connecticut’s requirement that anyone who has traveled to an affected African country, even if they do not have any symptoms of disease, quarantine themselves for 21 days.
On Wednesday, the CDC announced that, beginning next week, travelers who arrive in the United States from Ebola-stricken countries will be closely monitored for 21 days by public health officials to make sure they don’t’ develop a fever. Travelers from West Africa to six states, including New York and New Jersey, would be subject to monitoring first.
Those travelers will also face new rules about where they can travel within the United States. But, unlike Connecticut’s health department, the CDC does not require travelers from Africa to be quarantined if they are symptom–free, unless they have been in contact with an infected individual.
“If, however, someone is ill, that’s a very different story,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden. “That would involve the person being isolated and, if necessary, transported by trained medical personnel.”
Connecticut’s policy is also to isolate anyone showing Ebola symptoms who may be vulnerable to infection.
But Gov. Dannel Malloy went one step further in announcing last week that symptom-free travelers would be subject to quarantine, not just monitoring.
The public health department said federal authorities notify the agency of travelers from affected West African countries — Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia — that have been subject to an enhanced screening process established at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and four other major U.S. airports.
“If you are not sick, but have traveled to affected areas or been in contact with an infected individual, you will be required to stay at home for 21 days and take your temperature twice a day,” the governor said in an Oct. 16 statement. “Public heath health workers will contact you twice a day by phone to see how you are doing. This is called quarantine.”
Gerrish indicated the Department of Public Health has some discretion over the policy and that some who have traveled from West Africa might not be quarantined.
“At a minimum, individuals will be required to report their temperatures twice daily and indicate whether they develop any symptoms of illness,” he said. “Some individuals may have their travel restricted and some may be confined to one location. Local health officials will actively monitor the health status of these travelers for 21 days.”
Craig M. Klugman, professor and chair of the Department of Health Sciences at Chicago’s DePaul University, said Connecticut may be “overly cautious” in its quarantine policy, especially since individuals who don’t have Ebola symptoms can’t infect anyone with the disease.
“Generally, in public health we choose the least restrictive alternative,” Klugman said. “You want to protect public health based on exact science, while protecting people’s liberty as much as possible.”
The Connecticut policy also raises the question of whether family members of someone who is quarantined at home must also be quarantined, Klugman said.