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Monday, June 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Connecticut Hauled Into Court Over Ebola Panic

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (CN) - A dozen people who traveled to Africa during the 2014 Ebola outbreak claim in a federal class action that Connecticut wrongfully confined them to their homes for three weeks.

Distinguishing the quarantine from thought-out public health guidelines, the plaintiffs say their ordeal was borne from "sensationalist news accounts" and "a close gubernatorial race."

"Neighbors and co-workers shunned Liberian immigrants living in Connecticut. Colleagues and administrators told public health students who had traveled to Liberia to help stop the epidemic that they were 'selfish' for putting Connecticut at risk," the lawsuit filed by Yale Law School's Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization states. "None of this hardship was necessary."

Led by the Liberian Community Association of Connecticut, the plaintiffs say Gov. Dannel Malloy instituted a statewide public health emergency on Oct. 7, 2014, that "undermined the urgent public health response to Ebola."

Indeed the decision by Malloy and then Public Health Commissioner Jewel Mullen to quarantine Connecticut residents who had spent time in Ebola-ravaged Liberia came after Malloy told reporters that the individuals were "not sick and not a risk to public health," according to the 49-page lawsuit.

Each of the plaintiffs denies having been in contact with anyone exhibiting Ebola symptoms.

The governor's office meanwhile defended the quarantine.

"Our first priority remains protecting the public from both foreseeable and unforeseeable harms," Malloy's spokesman Chris McClure said in a statement that notes the "enthusiasm and ambition" of the Yale students who filed the complaint.

"We are going to continue to be prepared for any contingencies and take the necessary steps to provide the protection the public expects," McClure added.

The plaintiff group includes a family of six who moved to the United States on a visa on Oct. 17, 2014.

Louise Mensah-Sieh, husband Nathaniel Sieh and their four children were allegedly quarantined in the West Haven basement apartment of Mensah-Sieh's sister after arriving at JFK Airport in New York City.

The lawsuit describes the apartment as "a poorly insulated basement, heated only by small space heaters." "Sometimes all six would huddle in the bed together, under blankets, to keep warm," the family added.

Attorneys say West Haven police stationed themselves outside the apartment round the clock. In one instance, officers allegedly told the family that they could not pay for a pizza delivery with paper money because it was contaminated.

The family says their children were treated them like criminals, having to endure police guards shining lights on them.

Connecticut's method of announcing the quarantine is under scrutiny as well. The complaint says health officials informed the family about the quarantine over the phone, two days after questioning them at JFK airport, and never served any written information about the quarantine.

Noting plans to visit family and friends in Liberia, the Mensah-Sieh family say they worry about future potential quarantines.

A bishop and his wife who work in Liberia and plan to return to the United States later this month are plaintiffs as well.

Two of the other plaintiffs are former doctoral candidates at the Yale School of Public Health who traveled to Liberia to aid the government there in the Ebola response.

One of those plaintiffs, Ryan Boyko, had a 100-degree fever a few days after his return to the United States, and he was transported to Yale-New Haven Hospital on Oct. 15, 2014. Boyko repeatedly tested negative for the virus and his fever subsided.

State officials nevertheless quarantined Boyko to his home for two additional weeks, the complaint states, noting that he had already been monitored for Ebola for one week.

Boyko says hospital security officers drove him to his New Haven apartment in an unmarked car, and police stood guard outside his home.

Both Boyko and fellow quarantined doctoral candidate Laura Skrip says they were denied sufficient supplies during the quarantine, including food and toiletries, as required by state law. The two plaintiffs say they were allowed to briefly step outside their apartments to pick up deliveries.

Boyko was unable to see his girlfriend, however, and says that relationship ended.

The quarantine also kept Boyko from his son, of whom he shares custody with his ex-wife, and from an international public health conference later that month, according to the complaint.

Boyko says he dropped out of the doctoral program after the quarantine interfered with his gig as a paid teaching assistant at Yale College.

This is not the first case of quarantined individuals suing political officials over the Ebola panic. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was sued last year for similarly quarantining a nurse who had worked in Sierra Leone.

Ebola is spread through physical contact with bodily fluids or via objects contaminated with the virus. It cannot be spread through the air. The incubation period can range from a couple of days to three weeks.

In response to the 2014 outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a safety plan for monitoring those who might have contracted the disease, which included special screenings but not "movement restrictions" for asymptomatic individuals who had traveled to the affected areas in Africa or who had been in contact with infected individuals. The CDC later changed its position to recommend "controlled movement" on asymptomatic individuals.

There have been no confirmed cases of Ebola in Connecticut.

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