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Health Department Defends Decision To Quarantine Rutland Man

Taylor Dobbs

A Rutland-area man who had been traveling in Sierra Leone and Guinea is in voluntary quarantine in an undisclosed location. In a hastily called press conference on October 28th, Vermont governor Peter Shumlin explained that the man, now identified as Peter Italia, is cooperating with the quarantine request. But, Shumlin said, “if, with this situation—or any other individual—the health department deemed it necessary to establish involuntary monitoring, we have an ability to do so by an order of the commissioner.” Shumlin went on to say the state was prepared to act on that ability in order to keep the public safe.

Acting Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan says that as of now, Italia has been fully cooperative, and the state is operating under the understanding that he will remain in isolation for the duration of the Ebola incubation period. “Right now,” Dolan told VPR’s Vermont Edition, “our plan is 21 days and there’s nothing that tells us we would deviate from that plan.” So the question of whether Italia’s confinement is voluntary or involuntary seems largely one of semantics.

Some public health officials, including CDC head Thomas Frieden, have criticized mandatory quarantine procedures other states have enacted for people not showing symptoms of Ebola. And Vermont state epidemiologist Patsy Kelso acknowledges that Italia poses no risk to the public, given that he is not exhibiting any symptoms of illness. In fact, the public health nurses conducting twice daily checks on Mr. Italia are not wearing protective gear like gloves or masks. “We are checking to make sure he’s feeling well before we’re visiting,” Kelso explains, “because, obviously, he might develop symptoms between visits. But other than that there’s no indication that any kind of protection is indicated.”

Acting Commissioner Dolan insists the fact that the man is required to remain in quarantine while those who are checking on him are taking no precautions is not a contradiction. “Having him in voluntary quarantine really makes him much easier to monitor,” she says. In his press conference, Governor Shumlin stated that Italia is transient and has no permanent housing, so he is being put up by the state. The health department says making sure they know his whereabouts is as much about keeping him safe as keeping the public safe.

Dolan stresses that this situation is unique and should not be seen as precedent setting. “We really want to take it on a case by case basis so we are not setting out a written policy that absolutely categorizes people.”

Some doctors and nurses in Vermont are headed to affected countries in West Africa in the coming weeks. The health department says those medical professionals may not need to be quarantined upon their return, depending on what kind of exposure to Ebola they have had.

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