On Friday afternoon, Gov. Chris Christie took decisive action: Those exposed to Ebola in West Africa would be subject to a mandatory quarantine. He would immediately enforce that policy in the case of a nurse from Maine, Kaci Hickox, who arrived at Newark International Airport after a month treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone.
Friday night, Hickox ran a fever, Christie reported, and it appeared as though the governor had protected the people of New Jersey and the country from a lethally contagious woman. It rekindled memories of Christie’s most popular national moment two years ago this week, when he donned a famous fleece and led the state through the debilitating aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
But by Saturday morning, Christie’s display of leadership — which had been a subtle signal that he could handle the crisis management of the presidency, by the way — was in peril.
The quarantine confused the message on the government’s Ebola response — who would be affected, whether people are contagious if they’re not symptomatic, and where those under quarantine would be taken.
Hickox proved to be a formidable foe. First she penned an essay alleging that she had been mistreated by authorities at the airport and forcibly taken by police escort to University Hospital in Newark. She maintained that she wasn’t ill — her temperature, she said, was taken from her forehead and was inaccurate. The next morning on CNN, she called her treatment “inhumane.”
“I think we have to be very careful having politicians making medical and public health decisions,” Hickox said. “All the evidence shows that if you are not symptomatic, you are not infectious.”
Hickox was being held in a tent within a building adjacent to the hospital. She was given take-out food by personnel in protective gear, and she was allowed use of a computer, smart phone and temporary toilet, but she had no shower or TV. At one point, she threatened to sue.
Soon, federal officials were criticizing Hickox’s quarantine, saying it violated the protocol of the Centers for Disease Control and risked making Americans less likely to fly to Africa to treat patients. By Sunday night, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had called a news conference with Mayor Bill deBlasio, in which the New York governor seemed to soften his stance on the same mandatory quarantine that he had announced Friday alongside Christie.
Cuomo deferred any questions about Hickox to New Jersey officials, which put Christie in a tight spot. He was now in the position of solely enforcing a quarantine against a nurse who had just spent a month saving lives in Africa. Also complicating matters was that Hickox said she was healthy, even as Christie reaffirmed that she was running a fever.
The political risk for Christie was that he wasn’t even in the state. He spent the weekend campaigning for Republican candidates and laying groundwork for a possible 2016 presidential run. On Saturday and Sunday alone he appeared at a college football tailgate party with the Republcian gubernatorial candidate in Nebraska, at a pheasant hunt fundraiser for a conservative congressman in Iowa, at a birthday party for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (where he slammed President Obama for his failure of leadership), and in Florida, where he did five events Sunday for Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
Who was in charge? Christie or the acting governor, Kim Guadagno? A spokesman didn’t respond to questions about that on Sunday. And the quarantine led to lots of other questions, too, and not just among reporters. A source in New Jersey said high-level authorities didn’t yet know if military personnel were also subject to the quarantine — or if they had a legal basis for arresting someone who might refuse the mandatory quarantine. And which agency was in charge? The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey technically controls the two airports receiving Ebola patients, Newark and JFK, but at some point Port Authority Police Department was removed as the lead law enforcement agency for Ebola, a source said.
By Monday morning, Christie put an end to the Hickox quarantine. Saying she had shown no signs of illness for 24 hours, she was to be taken by private aircraft back to her home in Maine for possible quarantine there.
“You can’t take chances on this stuff and allow people who may in fact be contagious to be able to travel,” Christie told reporters in Florida Monday morning.
“I know [Hickox] didn’t want to be there. No one ever wants to be in a hospital, I suspect. I understand that. But the fact is I have a much greater responsibility to the public.”
This doesn’t mean Christie’s quarantine quagmire is over. Far from it. A source says that an estimated 1 to 3 people exposed to Ebola could be coming through Newark Airport – and three to five at JFK Airport — every single day.