Why We're Holding an Ebola Nurse Hostage

Lack of faith in leadership class leads to extreme, outrageous outcomes.

National Journal

The governors don't trust the scientists who oppose a mandatory quarantine for health care professionals exposed to Ebola.

The White House doesn't trust the governors. The governors don't trust the White House. Doctors don't trust nurses. Nurses don't trust hospital administrators. Hospital administrators don't trust federal officials, and the Feds don't trust them. Nobody trusts the media. The public trusts nothing.

This rampant lack of faith in each other and in our institutions is how we got to a place where the state of New Jersey is holding a courageous 33-year-old nurse hostage. After treating Ebola patients in West Africa and twice testing negative for the virus, Kaci Hickox was ordered quarantined in a cold, spartan tent outside Newark's University Hospital.

"We can have a conversation about what further measures would look like, but this is an extreme that is not acceptable," Hickox told CNN. She's right. While the Obama administration hasn't done enough to contain Ebola and reassure anxious Americans, Gov. Chris Christie has gone too far.

NBC News' extraordinary health care reporter, Maggie Fox, says, "The people most at risk of Ebola are caregivers and health care workers, who are physically touching Ebola patients at their sickest. In 40 years of studying Ebola outbreaks, no one has seen a mystery case. People are infected by direct contact with others—not casual contact on buses, trains, or in the street."

I worked with Maggie before she joined MSNBC. She's a friend. I know her to be a knowledgeable and objective health care journalist, a person whose opinion I trust when she declares there's no danger of an Ebola outbreak.

But, see, there's the problem: Most people don't have a Maggie Fox in their lives, a trusted expert. Not that long ago, the leaders of American social and political institutions were the honest brokers, but no more.

The governors of New Jersey, New York, Illinois, and Florida backed mandatory quarantines last week, offering few details. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo backtracked Sunday. Christie bowed Monday, announcing that Hickox will be transported to Maine. I can think of a number of reasons governors might be so cavalier with civil liberties, starting with ignorance, fear, and presidential politics. But there's more to it than cynicism.

There's a lack of faith in the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and other health care institutions that overstated the certitude of the science behind Ebola, the preparedness of the U.S. health care system, and the efficiency of their own protocols.

Whom do you trust?

The consensus of the scientific community is that mandatory quarantines will discourage health care workers from fighting the roots of the disease in West Africa, a long-term threat to the United States.

But at least one health care professional, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, an NBC correspondent who had traveled to Liberia and whose cameraman had contracted Ebola, violated a voluntary-based protocol by picking up food at a restaurant near her home. When a doctor, Craig Spencer, tested positive in New York City on Thursday, forensic scientists had to retrace his every step.

Do you trust doctors and nurses to monitor themselves?

Insisting upon anonymity, White House officials told reporters they had pressured Cuomo and Christie to reconsider mandatory confinement. Christie said he had "gotten absolutely no contact" from the White House. Cuomo said he has not been pressured.

Do you trust any of these politicians?

When the initial case of Ebola rattled a Dallas hospital, doctors and administrators blamed nurses for overlooking the patient's trip to Liberia. Turns out, doctors overlooked nurses' warnings. When a nurse who treated the first patent became infected, officials accused her of violating their protocols. Turns out, the protocols weren't in place.

Whom do you trust in the medical profession?

In the media, cultural and business pressures have created newsrooms with far fewer people like Maggie, experienced and impartial reporters who dig for the truth. Facts matter less than years ago, a problem often hidden by the rise of writing that emphasizes "point of view" and "voice."

On Ebola, conservative media organizations tend to exaggerate the threat of virus, and they stretch to link Democrats to it. Liberal news organizations tend to minimize the threat, deploying condescension and mockery where a dose of empathy might be more persuasive.

Do you trust the media?

Countless polls suggest that the public has lost faith in all institutions, particularly the media and politics, which is how a health care heroine such as Hickox finds herself confined to a tent, when a parade is in order. When we don't know whom to trust, when there's no sane center of American discourse, extreme and outrageous things occur.

"I think this is a policy that will become a national policy sooner rather than later," Christie said of the mandatory quarantine. Unfortunately, given the lack of honest leadership around us, I trust he's right.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified Maggie Fox's employer.