Editorials

Rights, responsibility and reassurance on Ebola

A screen grab from a Skype interview with Dr. Colin Bucks, a Stanford emergency physician who is quarantined in his home in Redwood City. Though he has no symptoms, he worked in Liberia with Ebola patients until recently.
A screen grab from a Skype interview with Dr. Colin Bucks, a Stanford emergency physician who is quarantined in his home in Redwood City. Though he has no symptoms, he worked in Liberia with Ebola patients until recently. Stanford Health Care

For the last seven days, since he returned from a Liberian clinic, Dr. Colin Bucks has been home alone.

His wife and dog are at a hotel. Visitors are verboten. The Stanford emergency physician, back in his Redwood City living room after a five-week stint treating Ebola patients, doesn’t plan to see or touch another human for another two weeks, if not longer.

Medically, he’s no threat. He has had neither a fever nor symptoms, and even if he turns out to have been infected, the disease can’t be transmitted without direct contact with bodily fluids.

But the 43-year-old doctor views his isolation – initially self-imposed, and now overseen by San Mateo County under the state’s new public health guidelines – not just as part of his deployment, but as a civic duty.

“What we’re doing to provide worthy reassurance to the public is enormously cautious,” he said this week in a Skype interview with local media outlets. But, he said, he’s “happy” to go the extra mile “if that’s what’s necessary to say to my community and my neighbors, ‘You are at zero risk.’”

Could we just stop for some grateful applause here?

In the weeks since the worst Ebola outbreak in modern history touched down in this country, Americans have struggled to maintain reason and tamp down fear.

Sensational media and political grandstanding haven’t helped matters. Neither have assertions that all we need is for the potentially exposed to voluntarily keep their distance – not when they are followed by, say, news of that Texas nurse who flew to Cleveland and then turned out to be infected.

Never mind that the nurse recovered and that no one on the plane caught it. The whole situation felt too out of control and scary.

So, knowing that fear can be its own kind of contagion, what happened when a fresh case of Ebola showed up in New York City? More sensation, more grandstanding, and another nurse – this time traveling from New Jersey to Maine – who couldn’t just sit still and let us adjust for a minute.

Yes, Kaci Hickox was heroic for donating her time to West African Ebola patients. And yes, the conservative governors of New Jersey and Maine were wrong to isolate her when she had no symptoms.

But would it really have been so much for her and her lawyer to wait and see if this was a necessary battle? Is three weeks so bad? Isn’t that, like, the length of a snow day by Maine standards?

Science doesn’t support blanket quarantines, even for those who have been exposed to Ebola, and people need to understand that their fear is unfounded. But people also have a way of calming down and regaining reason.

It’s possible that surrendering to an overabundance of caution on Hickox’s part might have put us all on some slippery slope or another. But people don’t calm down if they’re imagining some wild-eyed libertarian nurse putting her right to go bicycling ahead of their right not to catch Ebola.

What does help is the sense that everyone is going above and beyond to prevent the spread of what Bucks calls “this wicked virus.” That’s why his working at home, just in case, just for now, is such a public service.

Enormously cautious though it may be, it’s also enormously reassuring – so much so that, if enough medical volunteers follow Bucks’ thoughtful example in the short term, California may never have to bother with its new right to mandate quarantines.

In fact, as we all calm down, that reassurance might even make room for some reasonable questions. Like, when did giving a little become so novel that the merest compromise made you want to applaud it?

And when did rights become the talk of this home-alone nation, as opposed to responsibilities?

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