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HIV/AIDS Community Leaders Bring Swift Opposition of Ebola Quarantine to State Officials

October 28, 2014

On Friday, Oct. 24, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced a policy of mandatory 21-day quarantine for persons arriving from Ebola-affected nations in West Africa who reported any contact with people who had the disease.

As quickly as the quarantine order appeared, advocates moved into action, sharing their concerns about the quarantine, as well as specific outrage at the detention of Kaci Hickox, an asymptomatic nurse held in isolation at a Newark hospital as she returned from a month of service with Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone.

In addition to a lack of scientific evidence and public health consensus for quarantine (as opposed to national guidelines for mandatory monitoring of those who may have risk of exposure), the advocates believe that the policy could encourage misinformation about Ebola transmission; increase stigma against West Africans, immigrants and health care workers; and limit the capacity of health professionals to assist in the mounting crisis in affected countries.

By Saturday afternoon, HIV/AIDS advocates and public health leaders had a teleconference with New York's acting director of health, deputy secretary for civil rights and the executive director of Port Authority. However, they had already begun to circulate a letter opposed to the state’s quarantine policy -- it would ultimately garner over 110 signatures of top public health professionals, clinicians, advocates, and leaders with HIV in less than two days -- and were unassuaged by what they learned in the call with officials about the state's steadfast plans to implement the policy. While the state said it would take measures to facilitate home confinement, the policy would remain that of quarantine.

On Monday morning, a small group of advocates held a face-to-face meeting with state leaders in Manhattan, then moved to the entrance of Bellevue Hospital, where a 5-year-old boy with possible symptoms of Ebola had recently arrived as doctors continued to treat Dr. Craig Spencer, the first case of Ebola in the city. Even as the advocates made their way to the hospital, word was spreading that two adolescent boys who returned to New York from Senegal about a month ago had been badly beaten in the Bronx by attackers who had called them "Ebola" at school.

Jennifer Flynn of VOCAL-NY speaks with reporters at the HIV/AIDS activist press conference decrying Cuomo's mandatory quarantine measures.

Jennifer Flynn of VOCAL-NY speaks with reporters at the HIV/AIDS activist press conference decrying Cuomo's mandatory quarantine measures.

At the hospital, the media crowded the sidewalk as New York-based HIV/AIDS community leaders -- all members of Governor Cuomo's Ending the Epidemic Task Force -- stressed the importance of having one unified and scientifically-sound approach, rather than different policies across state lines, and recommended sticking to the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"We know that when Governor Cuomo takes leadership he can really lead the whole country and that's what we expect from this governor here in New York state," explained Jennifer Flynn of VOCAL-NY. "It is actually the exact opposite of what we've seen in the leadership of this governor on his commitment to ending AIDS. When the science is there and you follow the science, you get good public health policy. This policy of mandatory quarantine for people who do not show symptoms of Ebola is not good public health policy.

"We know that when people fear they will be quarantined, they will be less likely to report. We know that they will be scared away from helping and actually addressing the very real and terrifying public health crisis in West Africa which we need to do everything we can to stop."

Guillermo Chacón, President of Latino Commission on AIDS, characterized the meeting with state officials as a "productive dialogue," adding, "We need one single response. We want policy that does not stigmatize or promote fear. We are grateful to have people committed at all levels. If you review this letter, you will be impressed with national and international leaders in public health in sync with our concerns."

Peter Staley, Charles King (in rear) and Guillermo Chacón at a Bellevue Hospital press conference on Ebola quarantine policies.

Peter Staley, Charles King (in rear) and Guillermo Chacón at a Bellevue Hospital press conference on Ebola quarantine policies.

Peter Staley, whose public organizing efforts on Facebook attracted the interest of the Cuomo Administration, spoke from the perspective of a survivor of the early AIDS epidemic in New York City, adding his analysis of the politicization of the policy:

On Thursday night on television, with our mayor and our governor and our city health officials all standing together and calmly reassuring the public that they were in charge and doing the right things and that they cared about this was something I could only dream of as a person with AIDS in New York in the 1980s, where our politicians stigmatized and stirred up fear and refused to act against that new epidemic.

Less than 24 hours after that beautiful moment for New Yorkers our governor turned his back on a national consensus on how to fight this disease.

He joined himself at the hip with Governor Christie in New Jersey, who is trolling for tea party votes and he can't cry now about what's happening to the nurse in Newark after Christie is playing the bully for his tea party supporters.

This is what happens when states go off on their own and when politicians take over instead of listening to the scientific consensus.

After the press conference, Staley shared with why he feels that Ebola policy is of particular interest to people living with HIV:

Inspiring stories of people living with HIV.

"The first sign of an epidemic is the spread of illness. The second is the spread of hysteria -- which not only punishes victims but impedes treatment and public education. Political leaders and public health experts know this terrible cycle, and yet it's being repeated before our eyes," added Kelsey Louie, chief executive officer of GMHC. "Today we are at a critical junction in our response to Ebola. Will we sit back and allow history to repeat itself?"

Louie recalled the story of Ryan White, a child who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion in the early days of the epidemic and whose travails of stigma helped to inspire the massive federal care program for HIV named in his honor.

"Despite the panic and stigma created in our nation's response to HIV/AIDS, our great city and state emerged as a leader in compassionate and science-based response to that epidemic," Louie said. "Let's continue that tradition and ensure that those fighting and affected by the global response to Ebola know they can come home to the support they so deserve."

Charles King, CEO and President of Housing Works, led the press conference, and delineated in some detail "what we support, what we don't support, and what our recommendations have been for the Governor."

Inspiring stories of people living with HIV.

According to The New York Times, the federal government announced a new set of monitoring guidelines on Monday, including in-person checkups and phone contact from a local public health authority, that "stopped short of the tough measures instituted in New York and New Jersey last week, an effort to bring uniformity to a messy patchwork of responses by states."

Julie "JD" Davids is the managing editor for and She has been involved in the discussion and organizing efforts described above.

Follow JD on Twitter: @JDAtTheBody.

Copyright © 2014 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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