WASHINGTON – Maine’s governor said Wednesday he would seek legal authority to enforce a 21-day quarantine on a Maine nurse who has tested negative for Ebola after treating patients in West Africa and initially was isolated in a tent in New Jersey.
Gov. Paul LePage issued a statement after nurse Kaci Hickox said she would challenge the New England state’s restrictions and would not follow guidelines to quarantine herself until Nov. 10 as demanded.
The controversy involving Hickox and officials in New Jersey and Maine highlighted the obstacles officials in U.S. states face as they try to guard against the spread of a disease that has triggered public alarm, without taking overzealous precautions.
Ebola has killed nearly 5,000 people, predominantly in the West African countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Hickox, 33, has said her forced quarantine in New Jersey from Oct. 24 to Monday — even though she tested negative for the virus — was a violation of her basic rights.
“If the restrictions placed on me by the state of Maine are not lifted by Thursday morning, I will go to court to fight for my freedom,” she said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” program.
In several media interviews, Hickox said she was in good health and had not had any symptoms of the virus that would indicate she had become contagious. Speaking from her home in Fort Kent, a town of nearly 5,000 people on the Canadian border, she said she had been monitoring her condition and taking her temperature twice a day.
She sharply criticized state guidelines that would require her to stay isolated at home for 21 days.
“I don’t plan on sticking to the guidelines. I remain appalled by these home quarantine policies that have been forced upon me, even though I am in perfectly good health and feeling strong and have been this entire time completely symptom-free,” she told NBC.
Hickox told ABC that her last contact with an Ebola patient was on Oct. 21, eight days ago. The maximum incubation period for Ebola is 21 days.
Governor LePage said that Maine officials had hoped that Hickox, whom he did not refer to by name, “would voluntarily comply” with the quarantine “but this individual has stated publicly she will not abide by the protocols.”
“Upon learning the health care worker intends to defy the protocols, the Office of the Governor has been working collaboratively with the state health officials within the Department of Health and Human Services to seek legal authority to enforce the quarantine,” the governor said.
LePage said the state is “very concerned about her safety and health and that of the community” and is exploring “all of our options” for protecting Hickox, people who come in contact with her, the entire community of Fort Kent 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,” LePage said.
Attorneys for Hickox said Maine officials would have to go to court to get an order to enforce a quarantine and that, if the state does, their client would challenge it.
Hickox worked with the medical organization Doctors Without Borders to help treat patients with the virus in Sierra Leone and fought earlier isolation in New Jersey.
“I feel absolutely great,” Hickox told ABC’s “Good Morning America” program on Wednesday.
“I truly believe this policy is not scientifically nor constitutionally just, and so I am 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,” she told NBC.
Medical professionals say Ebola is difficult to catch and is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person and is not transmitted by asymptomatic people. Ebola is not airborne.
Four people have been diagnosed with Ebola in the United States, with one death, a Liberian man who flew to Texas. Two of his nurses were infected, but both have recovered and have been released from hospitals. The only patient now being treated for Ebola in the United States is a New York doctor, Craig Spencer, who was diagnosed on Oct. 23. He had worked with Doctors Without Borders treating Ebola patients in Guinea.
There has been a growing chorus of critics — including public health experts, the United Nations, medical charities and even the White House — denouncing mandatory quarantines as scientifically unjustified and an obstacle to fighting the disease at its source in West Africa.
In another development, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday approved strict, quarantine-like monitoring for all U.S. military personnel returning from the Ebola relief mission in West Africa, the Pentagon said. The U.S. Army adopted such a policy earlier in the week before Hagel approved it for all branches of the military.
Hagel signed a memo asking top military commanders to develop an implementation plan to place U.S. military personnel returning from Ebola-affected countries into a “21-day controlled monitoring regimen,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.
The Pentagon had said on Monday that Maj. Gen. Darryl Williams, commander of U.S. Army Africa, and 11 of his staff were put in isolation for 21 days of monitoring after returning from West Africa to their home base in Vicenza in northeastern Italy.
The army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, ordered the isolation not because of medical necessity but to reassure troops and local communities that the Army was taking “all steps necessary to protect their health,” an army statement said.