Michelle McPhee | Inset: ABC News
Maine officials are scrambling to figure out what to do about returning Ebola nurse Kaci Hickox, who has vowed to disobey its quarantine rules.
The governor and other officials are seeking legal authority to enforce what started out as a voluntary quarantine, and state police are monitoring Hickox’s Fort Kent home “for both her protection and the health of the community,” according to a statement today from the Maine governor’s office.
“We are very concerned about her safety and health and that of the community,” Maine Gov. Paul LePage said in the statement. “We are exploring all of our options for protecting the health and well-being of the healthcare worker, anyone who comes in contact with her, the Fort Kent community and all of Maine. While we certainly respect the rights of one individual, we must be vigilant in protecting 1.3 million Mainers, as well as anyone who visits our great state.”
Hickox, 33, was treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone for Doctors Without Borders. She returned to the United States on Friday, landing in Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, where she was questioned and quarantined in an outdoor tent through the weekend despite having no symptoms. She registered a fever on an infrared thermometer at the airport but an oral thermometer at University Hospital in Newark showed that she actually had no fever, she said.
After twice testing negative for the deadly virus, Hickox was released and returned home to Maine on Monday. The following day, the state’s health commissioner announced that Maine would join the handful of states going beyond federal guidelines and asking that returning Ebola health workers self-quarantine.
“Our true desire is for a voluntary separation from the public. We do not want to have to legally enforce an in-home quarantine,” Main Health Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in a statement. “We are confident that the selfless health workers, who were brave enough to care for Ebola patients in a foreign country, will be willing to take reasonable steps to protect the residents of their own country. However, we are willing to pursue legal authority if necessary to ensure risk is minimized for Mainers.”
But Hickox said she doesn’t think it is reasonable.
“I will go to court to attain my freedom,” Hickox told “Good Morning America” today via Skype from her hometown of Fort Kent. “I have been completely asymptomatic since I’ve been here. I feel absolutely great.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t consider health workers who treated Ebola patients in West Africa to be at “high risk” for catching Ebola if they were wearing protective gear, according to new guidelines announced this week. Since they have “some risk,” the CDC recommends that they undergo monitoring — tracking symptoms and body temperature twice a day — avoid public transportation and take other precautions. But the CDC doesn’t require home quarantines for these workers.
Someone isn’t contagious until Ebola symptoms appear, according to the CDC. And even then, transmission requires contact with bodily fluids such as blood and vomit.
“I remain really concerned by these mandatory quarantine policies for aid workers,” Hickox said today. “I think we’re just only adding to the stigmatization that, again, is not based on science or evidence.”
Lawyer Eugene Kontorovich, who teaches constitutional law at Northwestern University, said that according to the Maine statute, officials can get a court order and force Hickox to be confined to her home. They’ll have to show clear and convincing evidence that she should be in custody, he said. That can take a few days or “can be done as quickly as they can write up an affidavit,” he said.
Dallas officials asked the family of Liberian native Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola on American soil, to stay in their apartment for the virus’s 21-day incubation period, but they didn’t comply, prompting a court order. Duncan was symptomatic when he stayed with them, but no one contracted Ebola.
Public health lawyer Wendy Mariner, who teaches at Boston University School of Law, said if Hickox doesn’t comply, she can then be charged for violating an order to stay home.
If that happens, Kontorovich said she could be jailed.
“I don’t know about the state law, but definitely under federal law someone can be sent to jail for violating quarantine, so it’s a criminal offense,” Kontorovich said. “She’s not the first person who is finding her quarantine inconvenient. No one likes quarantine. That’s why it’s forcible.”