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Opinion Northwest

Join the informed writers of The Times' editorial board in lively discussions at our blog, Opinion Northwest.

October 31, 2014 at 6:09 AM

Ebola aid workers can’t be trusted

Corrected version

Whatever tattered remnants that were left of American health care workers’ benevolent image is now gone.

Nurse Kaci Hickox leaves her home on a rural road in Fort Kent, Maine, to take a bike ride with her boyfriend Ted Wilbur, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014.  The couple went on an hour-long ride followed by a Maine State Trooper.  State officials are going to court to keep Hickox in quarantine for the remainder of the 21-day incubation period for Ebola that ends on Nov. 10. Police are monitoring her, but can't detain her without a court order signed by a judge. (AP Photo / Robert F. Bukaty)

Nurse Kaci Hickox leaves her home on a rural road in Fort Kent, Maine, to take a bike ride with her boyfriend Ted Wilbur, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014. (AP Photo / Robert F. Bukaty)

They can thank Kaci Hickox for that.

The Maine nurse, who heroically spent a month treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, has undone her noble act of charity with a defiant, in-your-face flouting of the voluntary, 21-day self-quarantine that several states have adopted for aid workers returning from the stricken nations of West Africa.

By refusing to abide by the quarantine – she took an unsanctioned bike ride Thursday – Hickox has dispatched the iconic image of emotive nurses and selfless physicians, replacing them with an all-too-believable caricature of arrogant caregivers and jerk doctors.

Farewell Florence Nightingale.

Hello Nurse Ratched.

Hickox thinks she’s proving a point; that she and other asymptomatic returning health care workers are no threat to the public, and thus should not be treated as outcasts. Instead she’s coming off as self-centered, arrogant, and uncaring of public concerns. And that’s pissing people off.

She’s had a little help in her butchered facelift of health care workers image. New York Dr. Craig Spencer also returned from Ebola work in West Africa last week. Spencer, who may have followed federal protocols, still gallivanted around the most populous city in the country for days before he became symptomatic and notified health authorities.

The New York Post reported that Spencer initially told authorities he’d self-quarantined, but later admitted to his extensive outings after police checked his credit card history. Health officials refuted that account, but if true, that’s all the proof anyone needs to know that a self-quarantine is no quarantine at all.

His belated onset of Ebola should also show Hickox why rational people are concerned about her cavalier attitude.

Nurse Kaci Hickox, right, and her boyfriend, Ted Wilbur, take delivery of a pizza at their home in Fort Kent, Maine, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014. State officials are going to court to keep Hickox in quarantine for the remainder of the 21-day incubation period for Ebola that ends on Nov. 10. Police are monitoring her, but can't detain her without a court order signed by a judge. (AP Photo / Robert F. Bukaty)

Nurse Kaci Hickox, right, and her boyfriend, Ted Wilbur, take delivery of a pizza at their home in Fort Kent, Maine, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014. (AP Photo / Robert F. Bukaty)

Spencer came down with the disease within the 21 days after he returned. It doesn’t appear that he passed the disease on to anyone once he became symptomatic, but that risk would have been heavily minimized if he’d been fully quarantined through the accepted observation period.

Hickox did not have symptoms at last report. But she could develop them. And if she did, she’d be a risk to anyone in the general public she then came into contact with.

That’s why the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention protocol of daily monitoring of returning aid workers isn’t enough.

Hickox, Spencer, and anyone else who’s been exposed and wants to come into the United States should be quarantined in the country of exposure before being allowed to enter the U.S.

Anything less is inviting public comparisons to Gaëtan Dugas, the Canadian flight attendant once identified as the “patient zero” of HIV in North America. Dugas continued to have unprotected sex even after being diagnosed and after doctors warned him that future liaisons would expose his partners to the deadly virus.

More than anyone, doctors and nurses should recognize the possibility for such associations and conduct themselves more cautiously. Inexplicably, they don’t. Hickox and Spencer exemplify that, and according to the CDC there are about 100 people coming from Ebola-affected nations to the U.S. each day.

People trust health care workers because throughout recorded human history healers have been exalted to a unique, almost unquestioned status. In return, they’ve treated runny noses, saved lives on battlefields, and extended lifespans.

But if Hickox and Spencer are any indication, there are plenty of callous, self-absorbed bullies in the profession. That’s reason enough to revoke their previously enjoyed societal status and impose a mandatory – not voluntary – quarantine on anyone exposed to Ebola.

That’s an inconvenience that Hickox says treats her as a criminal. Not so. Science is on her side, but public opinion isn’t.

She’s been asked to conduct herself as a traditional caregiver, and put societal peace-of-mind ahead of her personal convenience. Such self-sacrifice had been part of the social contract, but based on her insolent stance, that doesn’t look likely.

So long as Hickox and returning aid workers like her are allowed to impose their potential exposure on the general public, fear can’t be nursed.

Meanwhile the only point she’s making is that the people we trust with our lives aren’t to be trusted.

This blog post, originally published Oct. 31 2014, was edited Nov. 4, 2014, to correct the spelling of Florence Nightingale and Nurse Ratched. It was also corrected to update the number and type of people entering the U.S. from Ebola-affected nations each day. About 100 total people enter the country daily, not 150 aid workers.

Comments | Topics: craig spencer, ebola, kaci hickox

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