Ebola nurse Kaci Hickox intensified the dispute over public safety vs. her civil rights as she and her boyfriend, Ted Wilbur, took a bike ride, breaking Maine’s mandatory quarantine after failing to reach a satisfactory compromise with officials to allow her some freedom in her confinement period. The governor vows to throw his weight behind efforts to keep the nurse away from public places pending a possible court order requiring her to remain in her home until the incubation period has passed. Several states have adopted stricter rules for travelers returning from areas at high risk for the Ebola infection, so Hickox’s case may set a precedent regarding the legality of mandatory quarantines.
Hickox and Wilbur rode less than a mile on a paved road with police and journalists in tow before turning off onto a gravel trail line with pine trees. They returned home in under an hour. Norm Siegel, one of Hickox’s attorneys, stated that the bike ride was an effective way to make her point without putting anyone in danger or scaring them unnecessarily. She just wanted to enjoy the beautiful day, he explained.
Ms. Hickox has consistently maintained her stance that she is symptom-free, and therefore, no risk to the public. She insists that science and the U.S. Constitution support her position that she is not contagious without symptoms and the restrictions violate her civil rights. She asserts that the states adopting such drastic measures are not considering all the evidence, both risks and benefits, before deciding to take away an individual’s rights resulting in an imbalance between fear, public health, and public safety. California is the latest state to join Florida, Maine, Maryland, and Virginia in cracking down on quarantines for those returning from areas affected by the Ebola epidemic in Africa. New York and New Jersey would allow self-monitoring and home quarantine for low-risk individuals.
On Wednesday, Nurse Hickox appeared ready to compromise with the state, accept restrictions on public transportation, and travel outside her hometown of Fort Kent, Maine. However, negotiations broke down and Gov. Paul Lepage announced that he would exercise his full legal authority to keep her away from public contact. He does not want her within three feet of anyone else for her own protection from the intensity of public opinion over the threat of Ebola. He expressed concern that her behavior is causing a lot of public dispute and they cannot protect her from the fallout of that if she goes out in public. Jeffrey Toobin, a senior legal analyst at CNN, explained that enforcing the quarantine would take a court order, which the state does not currently have, meaning that Ms. Hickox is not actually breaking any rules or laws by taking the bike ride.
The governor described Hickox as unwilling to comply with Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s protective measures for those who have been in direct contact with Ebola patients. Nonetheless, Siegel expressed the hope that Maine officials could work with the nurse’s legal team to effect a reasonable compromise rather than letting the intense dispute spiral out of control. Any disagreement over the constitutional issues should be solved in court, not on the street, he contends. Hickox’s bike ride carried through her earlier promise to break quarantine, if officials did not remove her restrictions by Thursday morning putting the ball in the state’s court to respond and set a precedent for how Ebola quarantines should be applied to returning health care workers.
By Tamara Christine Van Hooser
New York Times–Fail to Reach Compromise
New York Times–Threat of Lawsuit