Ebola Nurse Kaci Hickox Won't Quarantine Herself, and Maine Is Very, Very Unhappy About It
Setting off new debates over how to control Ebola at home, nurse Kaci Hickox is refusing Maine's Ebola quarantine mandate. If Maine does not lift its home quarantine restrictions by Thursday morning, Hickox said Wednesday she would take the policy before the courts as an irrational, unscientific violation of her civil liberties. The nurse, who returned last week from treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone with Doctors without Borders, was stopped upon entering Newark Airport and then forced into a mandatory quarantine tent for 65 hours at a local hospital after airport officials claimed she showed signs of a fever.
Hickox told TODAY's Matt Lauer that she would follow the self-monitoring regimen recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and other medical experts. If she developed a fever or other symptoms of the virus, she then promised to take appropriate quarantine action and to alert the health authorities. Since a person infected with the deadly virus does not become contagious until after they become symptomatic — generally by becoming feverish — Hickox claims that the self-imposed quarantines for health workers are based on fear, not science.
Hickox, who returned to Maine following her release from the New Jersey hospital Monday afternoon, said that she would continue to keep herself away from others until Thursday morning. For those infected, Ebola symptoms generally materialize within 21 days of exposure. If Hickox were to wait the full 21 days before interacting with others, she would be under voluntary house arrest until Nov. 10.
I remain appalled by these home quarantine policies that have been forced upon me even though I am in perfectly good health ... I truly believe this policy is not scientifically nor constitutionally just, and so I’m not going to sit around and be bullied around by politicians and be forced to stay in my home when I am not a risk to the American public.
Maine says, not so fast. Gov. Paul LePage (R-ME) said that the state is looking into how to legally enforce the quarantine, given that Hickox has indicated she won’t follow it. In a statement released Wednesday, the governor’s office also noted that the state police were monitoring Hickox’s residence.
If the hoopla over Hickox’s treatment has been building since she first landed in Newark’s airport last week, this recent announcement will surely add lighter fluid to the fire. Already, the local newspaper reports that some people are panicking in the town of Fort Kent, Maine, where Hickox lives. A number have cancelled medical procedures, even though Hickox has not been to the local health facility. And students at the University of Maine's Fort Kent campus where the nurse’s boyfriend is a nursing student threatened to boycott classes if he showed up on campus after associating with Hickox.
The Daily Caller reports that local Maine residents even started a Facebook group targeting Hickox’s decision not to remain quarantined while she is asymptomatic. Called “Mainers against Kaci Hickox returning home to Fort Kent Maine," the page had upwards of 945 likes at the time of this post. As the group proprietor noted,
I do think Kaci should be able to come home. Im not saying lets kick her out of maine. All i want and everyone else wants is for her to b quarantined in a hospital or some wheres other than her home in Fort Kent. and watched.
Even TODAY’s Lauer seemed to indicate that he thought Hickox’s decision betrayed a certain lack of care for the fear that the Ebola virus has set off among communities that perceive themselves (whether legitimately or no) to be exposed. Lauer referred to Dr. Craig Spencer, who returned from treating Ebola patients in Guinea and circulated through the city the day before he became feverish and was diagnosed with the virus.
"Do you understand what that did to the psyche of public officials in what is a metropolis of nine million people?" he asked Hickox.
Her response echoed that of the medical community: “I do understand that it has created a lot of fear, but we still have to make policies based on evidence."
The tension around Hickox’s treatment has risen so sharply that the New England Journal of Medicine saw fit to publish an online editorial Tuesday decrying the harsh quarantine policies from Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) as "not scientifically based...unfair and unwise." The editorial concludes:
The governors' action is like driving a carpet tack with a sledgehammer: it gets the job done but overall is more destructive than beneficial.
Following her quarantine in Newark, Hickox threatened to even sue Christie. (His response? "Whatever. Get in line.")
Infectious disease experts second the Journal’s views. Doctors without Borders has warned that imposing harsh quarantine requirements on returning health care workers will seriously hamper the organization’s ability to recruit the thousands of personnel needed to contain and control the virus’ outbreak at its source.
President Barack Obama made it clear which side the White House is on. In remarks on Tuesday, Obama joined the medical community in cautioning against letting fear dictate policy, a jibe that many saw as a thinly veiled critique of Gov. Christie’s response.
America in the end is not defined by fear — that's not who we are, Obama said. We don’t want to discourage our health care workers from going to the front lines and dealing with this in an effective way.
We can’t deny that fear is a powerful motivator in politics. But Hickox’s case — and the panicked responses to it from the states of New Jersey and Maine — demonstrates the risks we run politicians let fear dictate policy. As Hickox wrote in a piece in The Dallas Morning News:
I am scared about how health care workers will be treated at airports when they declare that they have been fighting Ebola in West Africa. I am scared that, like me, they will arrive and see a frenzy of disorganization, fear and, most frightening, quarantine.
Enforcing quarantines, whether self-imposed or not, on asymptomatic health care workers who are following all the proper monitoring protocol erodes both their civil liberties and their willingness to continue to put themselves on the front lines of this outbreak.
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