The U.S. Ebola debate Thursday centered on a small town in Maine, a governor vowing to use the “full extent” of his power to quarantine a humanitarian nurse, and the defiant nurse herself taking a rogue bicycle ride.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) said he plans to turn to legal measures to force Kaci Hickox, who recently returned from treating Ebola patients in West Africa, to remain quarantined at her home until any risk she might be infected with the virus has passed.
LePage said negotiations with Hickox and her attorneys had broken down “despite repeated efforts by state officials” to find a compromise, such as allowing her to go outside while keeping her distance from public places or other people. In a statement, he said that because Hickox “has been unwilling to follow the protocols,” the state would seek legal authority to restrict her movements until the period for possible infection has passed.
Hickox, who was detained in New Jersey for several days before being transported home to Maine, has said she is following guidelines on daily self-monitoring issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and remains free of symptoms, and that the state has no grounds for compelling her to remain in quarantine. Ebola generally is not transmissible until a person begins to show symptoms, such as fever and diarrhea.
“I’m not willing to stand here and let my civil rights be violated when it’s not science-based,” Hickox, 33, told reporters this week outside her home.
If Maine seeks a court order to enforce the quarantine, Hickox intends to challenge it, her attorney said. Even as LePage declared his intentions Thursday, Hickox followed through on her vow to ignore the voluntary quarantine order.
Trailed by reporters documenting her trip on a crisp Maine morning, she headed out on an hour-long bike ride with her boyfriend.
Hickox, who had worked for the aid group Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone, has become the central figure in a debate over how the government should deal with health-care workers who return to the United States after service in Ebola-ravaged West Africa.
Hickox became a high-profile test case when she arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport on the same day that New Jersey and New York announced mandatory quarantines for returning health-care workers, a measure that went beyond what had been recommended by the CDC and medical experts.
The policy was criticized by public-health experts, medical organizations and the White House, which called it unnecessary and said it would deter much-needed volunteers from traveling to West Africa to battle the epidemic there.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) ultimately released Hickox after holding her in an isolated medical tent at Newark’s University Hospital for several days, saying she could travel back to Maine and finish her 21-day quarantine there.
President Obama has dismissed calls for quarantines and more aggressive travel restrictions. He said that the people who serve in West Africa “deserve our gratitude and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Before her bike ride Thursday, Hickox had remained inside her Maine home since Monday, with a state trooper stationed outside.
LePage said state officials had tried to work with Hickox on a way for her to be quarantined at home, even allowing her to take walks or go on bike rides without interacting closely with the public. But they could not find common ground.
“As a result of the failed effort to reach an agreement, the Governor will exercise the full extent of his authority allowable by law,” LePage’s office said in a statement.
Obama also headed to Maine for a speech Thursday, but White House officials said he had no plans to contact Hickox or get involved in her case.
“Ultimately, it’s states and local officials who have the authority for implementing these policies,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters, but he added that Obama thinks such decisions should be guided by science.
Still, the fear over more potential Ebola infections in the United States has been hard to shake.
Louisiana officials this week wrote to the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, which will soon hold its annual conference in New Orleans, asking anyone who has traveled to Ebola-affected countries in West Africa in recent weeks not to attend.
“In Louisiana, we love to welcome visitors, but we must balance that hospitality with the protection of Louisiana residents and other visitors,” officials wrote, adding, “We do hope that you will consider a future visit to New Orleans, when we can welcome you appropriately.”
Juliet Eilperin and Joel Achenbach contributed to this report.