Ebola containment has sparked a legal battle in Maine as nurse Kaci Hickox has refused to complete the 21-day quarantine period required by the state for health care workers returning from areas stricken by the epidemic. Ms. Hickox insists that she is not a risk to the public and that she is the target of political bullies. New Jersey and New York have similar restrictions in place, in spite of official criticism from the White House that the health professionals deserve hero status and should receive respect, dignity and support rather than the aggravation of quarantines and travel bans. Maine officials hold firm on their determination to enforce the quarantine, sending police to watch the house and seeking a court order to enforce the quarantine. Hickox has issued the state a deadline of Thursday morning to lift the quarantine or she will take legal action against them to regain her freedom.
Ms. Hickox was working with Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone, where the ebola epidemic is particular severe. She arrived back in the U.S. through the airport at Newark, New Jersey last Friday, where screeners determined that she was running a temperature and sent her to nearby University Hospital for further testing. She has been tested twice for ebola since returning home and came away with a clean bill of health. She maintains that she is not contagious while free of symptoms so poses no public health risk. New Jersey medical staff pronounced her ebola-free and let her travel home to Fort Kent, Maine where the governor sparked a legal battle by ordering her to voluntarily self-quarantine for the 21-day incubation period with active monitoring for symptoms. She maintains that the fever reading at the airport was in error and she has been symptom-free since returning home and cannot spread the virus.
Her lawyer, Norm Siegel, argues that restrictions have their roots in myth and fear, not good science and medicine. He reminds the public that the government must have a compelling reason to deprive someone of liberty and in this case, no such reason exists. Therefore, forcing compliance with the quarantine restrictions is both illegal and unconstitutional. Both Ms. Hickox and Siegel have stated that she will self-monitor for ebola symptoms as she has already been doing, in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control guidelines for monitoring, but will officially oppose any court order that restricts her freedom of movement in her community.
Maine Health Commissioner, Mary Mayhew stated that anyone with a credible risk of incipient ebola infection is expected to voluntarily quarantine for the 21-day incubation period to be sure any risk of contagion has passed. Those that refuse will be served a court order requiring compliance. Hickox questions the reliability of the instruments the airport screeners used, as the hospital found no fever even though she took no fever reducing medications in the intervening time.
Hickox states that Maine’s mandatory quarantine policies for medical humanitarian aid personnel only adds to an unscientific stigma with no evidence to support the practice. Steven Hyman, another member of her legal team, explains that Hickox’s last contact with an ebola patient was on Oct. 21, 2014. He supports her insistence that there is no medical basis for quarantining her at this time since none of the medical tests have shown an incipient infection or disease. Although public opinion on her social media seems to spark in the direction of encouraging her to take the extra precaution for safety’s sake, she does not understand the concern as she states that facts, science and history are on her side in supporting the efficacy of self-monitoring as a “humane, understandable and prudent solution,” and preferable to mandatory quarantines. The battle between Hickox and the state is just heating up as she and her lawyers have been in negotiations with state officials on Wednesday and she is prepared to go to court if necessary to obtain her freedom. She is worried that allowing the mandatory quarantine policies to stand will discourage other health professionals from volunteering for the medical aid missions so desperately needed in the ebola-stricken Third World countries struggling under the weight of the devastating epidemic.
by Tamara Christine Van Hooser
WCSH 6 Portland
WHAS 11 ABC