Not long ago, Kaci Hickox was fighting Ebola in West Africa, doing what she could to treat those with the deadly disease. Now, she’s in the middle of a different fight — this time, in Maine.
Maine health commissioner Mary Mayhew said late Wednesday afternoon that, even as it continues talks with Hickox’s representatives, the state is in the process of filing a court order to require the nurse to abide by a 21-day quarantine. Mayhew cited concerns about Hickox’s hands-on role in dealing with Ebola patients, as well as “concerns about the lack of reliability and the lack of trustworthiness in the information that has been received.”
“You need to be able to have trust and credibility in that information,” the state health commissioner said. “That makes her a higher risk.”
Mayhew also blasted what she called “the lack of leadership at the federal level” that has created “a patchwork quilt of state-by-state determinations,” vowing that “we will not stand by and exacerbate the situation in Maine.”
Asked what she’d tell Hickox, Mayhew said, “We have been pleading for common sense, for an appreciation for the risks that exists.” She pointed to other states such as New Jersey, New York and Illinois that have implemented 21-day quarantines for health care workers returning from West Africa, over objections from some medical professionals and federal officials.
The health commissioner said she “did not understand” why Hickox is challenging what she calls a “common-sense approach” of staying home for three weeks. (That amount of time is significant because it may take that long between when a person gets Ebola and shows signs of it; furthermore, Ebola spreads only via bodily fluids, not through the air.)
“(This is) a reasonable request to ensure — out of an abundance of caution — that we are protecting the people of this state,” Mayhew said.
Yet Hickox thinks the U.S. Constitution and science are on her side.
And, because of that, she has no intention of staying put.
“I am completely healthy and symptom-free,” Hickox said Wednesday night from her front lawn, alongside her boyfriend. “I am frustrated by (the) intention … to file legal action against me.
“And if this does occur, then I will challenge those legal actions.”
Nurse: Won’t let ‘civil rights be violated when it’s not science-based’
Earlier this month, Hickox served with Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone, one of the three countries hit hardest by the ongoing Ebola epidemic. She returned to the United States, at Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey, on October 24 — then was sent to University Hospital in the same northern New Jersey city and put under quarantine.
On Monday, she was back home to her home in Fort Kent, a town of 4,000 people on Maine’s northern border.
Hickox insists that, from her arrival through now, she has felt fine and that she’s twice tested negative for Ebola. And since people can’t spread the virus unless they are displaying symptoms, the nurse believes she doesn’t pose a risk to anyone.
One of her lawyers, Norm Siegel, told CNN any measure that restricts his client’s movement is “based … on fear and on myth, not on medical fact.”
“The government can’t take away your liberty unless there’s some compelling basis for it,” Siegel said. “It doesn’t exist here.”
While police officers stand outside — to “monitor her” in case she leaves the house, according to Mayhew — local health officials have been checking on Hickox regularly. Talks have been ongoing as well, with Hickox saying she is open to travel restrictions like barring her from public transportation and limiting her to the Fort Kent area.
“So I think there are things that, I know, work. And I know all aid workers are willing to do those things,” said Hickox. “But I’m not willing to stand here and let my civil rights be violated when it’s not science-based.”
Having to defend herself and not being able to hug her friends, especially after four tough weeks in West Africa, is “painful (and) emotionally draining,” the nurse said. Hickox also said “it’s frustrating to hear nasty things,” saying her intentions going to Sierra Leone was to make “a difference in people’s lives” and her aim now that she’s back is not “to put anyone at risk in this community.”
While he didn’t mention Hickox’s case specifically, President Barack Obama on Wednesday did speak to — and in support of — health care workers like her who have risked their lives and livelihoods by going to West Africa to help those in need. He characterized them as “heroes” who “deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
He also criticized those championing policies such as quarantines and travel bans, saying that America should firstly be praising, encouraging and supporting health care workers critical to curbing the Ebola epidemic rather than antagonizing them.
“When I hear people talking about American leadership and then are promoting policies that would avoid leadership and have us running in the opposite direction and hiding under the covers, it makes me a little frustrated,” Obama said.
New Jersey governor on lawsuit: ‘Get in line’
The nurse told “Today” that she’s in good health and does not have symptoms. A person must be symptomatic to be contagious if they have Ebola. But it can take up to three weeks between when a person contracts the virus and they become sick, hence the talk of a 21-day quarantine.
Siegel told the Bangor Daily News that, while Hickox would contest any court order, she will abide by guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that say she should subject herself to monitoring, such as daily reporting of measured temperatures.
“The conditions that the state of Maine is now requiring Kaci to comply with are unconstitutional and illegal and there is no justification for the state of Maine to infringe on her liberty,” Siegel told the newspaper.
Hickox initially was put in isolation Friday, after landing in Newark, New Jersey.
New Jersey and New York had just started requiring anyone who had contact with Ebola patients in West Africa to be quarantined for 21 days. New Jersey officials additionally said that screeners determined that she had a fever at the airport.
But Hickox, speaking to CNN over the weekend from her quarantine tent at the New Jersey hospital, said she never had a fever.
“They were using a forehead scanner, and I was distressed and a little bit upset, and so my cheeks were flushed,” she told CNN’s Candy Crowley. The nurse said her temperature was later determined to be normal.
Hickox told “Today” that she witnessed “complete disorganization” at the airport in Newark, New Jersey, and that New York and New Jersey’s policies are “not scientifically” or “constitutionally just.”
The policies, she says, will be a “big deterrent” for health care workers who want to go to West Africa to treat patients, because they won’t want to be quarantined when they return if, like her, they are asymptomatic.
“It’s already difficult for people to take time out of their lives to go and respond,” she said, though she definitely plans to go back because it’s a “privilege to help.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said his state agreed to let her go to Maine after confirming she “was no longer symptomatic,” but he is unapologetic about New Jersey’s quarantine policy. The straight-talking Republican also hit back Tuesday at criticism that the nurse wasn’t treated well enough, arguing that she even had Internet access and takeout food.
“Whatever,” he said, when pressed by reporters about a potential legal challenge. “Get in line. I’ve been sued lots of times before. Get in line. I’m happy to take it on.”
The debate about how to treat returning health care workers comes amid what officials say is the worst Ebola outbreak in history.
The World Health Organization reported Wednesday that there are more than 13,700 confirmed or suspected cases of Ebola — almost all in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The United Nations’ health authority projected about 5,000 deaths from the virus.
And those are only the ones that authorities have been able to count. In a region where health care access and record-keeping are limited, the WHO says the death toll may be especially undercounted. Some ill people who are seen by physicians and counted as Ebola cases may not stay for treatment and die of the disease, and the record-keepers won’t know to record their deaths.
The WHO has said that the mortality rate from the current outbreak, starting with the first death in December, is roughly 60% to 70%.