How did Gov. Chris Christie’s administration come up with its policies and protocols for handling Ebola?
To get the answer, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey asked to see emails and other policy communications from top officials in the N.J. Department of Health.
Those requests were denied or otherwise rebuffed, the group said in a lawsuit filed yesterday that claims the state is in violation of the Open Public Records Act. Its lawsuit asks the court to fine the state and order it to provide the documents.
“The state of New Jersey must be transparent about the scientific information and health policy thinking used to formulate and implement these statewide,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “The public must be assured that these policy decisions are being guided by science, not fear.”
In a tumultuous 10-day span last October, a nurse in Texas developed Ebola from exposure to a patient and a volunteer physician who had returned to New York from West Africa came down with the disease as well.
In response, Christie and the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, announced the two states would impose a mandatory quarantine on all public health workers returning from the West Africa countries experiencing the outbreak. Later that day, a Maine nurse who appeared to have a fever upon arrival at Newark Liberty International Airport was whisked to nearby University Hospital, where she was held in isolation for three days despite being free of symptoms.
The new policy was stricter than the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, giving rise to criticism the two governors were responding to public fear, not science. However, other states soon followed their lead, and eventually federal officials ordered all returning aid workers to use one of five designated airports that provided mandatory screening of them.
“New Jersey policy differs from federal policy, so it’s important for our residents of people using our airports to know why that is,” said Ed Barocas, legal director of ACLU-NJ.
The ACLU said in its suit that its request for documents encountered frequent delays, taking over two months to be rejected.
“It appears to have been a delay for delay’s sake,” said Boracas.
“The department doesn’t comment on pending litigation,” said department spokeswoman Donna Leusner.
The state’s blanket rejection was based in part on an exemption that allows government to keep private material that is advisory, consultative or deliberative, according to an ACLU press release. However, instead of rejecting the Oct. 30 from the beginning, the state kept requesting more time to search for documents, the ACLU lawsuit contends.
Boracas noted the ACLU’s request included communication from Trenton to county health departments about the new policy after it had been implemented – correspondence that would clearly be past the “draft” stage that is exempt from public disclosure.
“We understand some of those emails will be subject to that exception, but not all,” he said. “It’s a document-by-document analysis.”