In October 2014, the first patient on American soil infected with the Ebola virus sits in isolation in a Texas hospital, prompting calls for travel restrictions between the United States and Ebola-stricken countries.
Meanwhile, four years ago, the administration of President Barack Obama moved with virtually no fanfare to abandon a comprehensive set of regulations which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had called essential to preventing international travelers from spreading deadly diseases inside the United States.
The CDC had proposed the regulations in 2005 under the administration of George W. Bush, reported USA Today in 2010. The original impetus for the regulations was fear that avian flu would spread unchecked.
The regulations proposed under the Bush administration would have granted the federal government a power of “provisional quarantine” to confine airline passengers involuntarily for up to three days if they exhibit symptoms of certain infectious diseases. Federal officials would also have been able to quarantine passengers exposed to people with those symptoms.
There was a fairly long list of diseases. It included smallpox, yellow fever, diphtheria, pandemic flu, infectious tuberculosis, cholera — and viral fevers such as Ebola.
Before the Obama administration withdrew the proposed new rules, CDC officials had emphasized that they would only invoke the involuntary “provisional quarantine” when someone exhibiting a set of symptoms refused to work with federal officials voluntarily.
The proposed rules also would have compelled airlines to inform the CDC about sick passengers and to maintain contact information about all fliers in case the CDC and other federal agencies need to investigate a serious disease outbreak.
Airline lobbyists vehemently opposed the regulations. It would be too expensive, they said.
“We think that the CDC was right to withdraw the proposed rule,” Air Transport Association spokeswoman Elizabeth Merida told USA Today in March 2010. Merida also called the regulations “unprecedented” in terms of cost and red tape.
Civil liberties advocates also strongly opposed the CDC regulations.
“The fact that they’re backing away from this very coercive style of quarantine is good news,” ACLU legislative counsel Christopher Calabrese said in 2010, according to USA Today.
Other critics suggested that air travel regulations make no difference concerning disease outbreaks.
“They probably learned during H1N1 that this hope of preventing diseases from entering the country by stationing people at airports is unrealistic,” Jennifer Nuzzo of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center told the newspaper.
The H1N1 flu virus caused a worldwide pandemic in 2009.
The first man in the United States to be diagnosed with the deadly Ebola virus is Thomas Eric Duncan. He picked up the virus after traveling to Liberia in September.
The State Department has dismissed calls for restricting travel from West Africa.
“I don’t believe that’s something we’re considering,” a Foggy Bottom spokeswoman said this week, according to The Washington Times.
Florida Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson, among others, has a called for such restrictions. Grayson, one of the earliest proponents for federal action on Ebola, wants a 90-day ban on travel from countries where the virus has broken out.
Other critics of the tepid Obama administration response have warned of “Ebola tourism.” The concern, as the Times explains, is that people will become infected with Ebola and come to the United States seeking its exceptional level of medical care.