When Kaci Hickox returned from fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone last year, she was emotionally exhausted, jet-lagged and in no mood to sit in quarantine. The nurse had just spent a month working for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in a clinic where, she said, staff kept track of the number of survivors, not the number of patients who died.
“It was too difficult of a thing to think about,” she told The Washington Post in a telephone interview. “We had to focus on the positive.”
Hickox was convinced that MSF’s detailed infection control policies — which included hand-washing with chlorinated water, wearing protective gear and adhering to a “no-touch” policy — had protected her. Yet, after she arrived at Newark Airport, she was quarantined against her will as a governor with presidential aspirations — current Republican contender Chris Christie — said those returning from Ebola-stricken nations couldn’t be trusted to monitor themselves for symptoms, and developed screening procedures with the possibility of mandatory isolation.
“I don’t believe when you’re dealing with something as serious as this that we can count on a voluntary system,” Christie said at the time. “The government’s job is to protect [the] safety and health of our citizens. And so we’ve taken this action, and I absolutely have no second thoughts about it.” And polls eventually showed New Jersey residents approved of the action.
Now, however, Hickox, 34, has fired another shot in a war many thought over. In a lawsuit filed Thursday in New Jersey with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the rebel nurse is suing Christie and other state officials for $250,000, alleging false imprisonment, invasion of privacy and violation of due process, among other claims.
“The key issue here is that quarantine decisions that really go against all constitutional law should have due process, and politicians shouldn’t be allowed to make their own judgments,” she said. “… I think this is a really important thing to fight for in the United States.”
The suit details the alleged harsh treatment Hickox, who has a master’s degree in public heath and another in nursing, faced in the 80 hours she spend in state custody upon her return from Africa on Oct. 24, 2014. After her plane landed, she informed immigration she had come from Sierra Leone. Her temperature was taken and found to be normal. However, she was questioned “as if she were a criminal and was wearing a weapon belt.”
Her detention went on. Hours later, her temperature was taken again — this time, an official told her, she did have a temperature. But Hickox didn’t believe it.
“Her face was flushed from frustration,” the suit said. “… Despite her emotional distress, Hickox felt physically healthy. She did not feel fevered.”
Hickox was eventually sent to a hospital “in an ambulance escorted by approximately eight police cars with lights and sirens blaring.” There, she was placed in a cold isolation tent “in a large building that appeared to be unfinished,” with a portable toilet but no shower. She was allowed to keep her cellphone, but reception was poor. Though there was some variation in her temperature depending on the thermometers used to measure it, it soon settled below 99.5 degrees — within normal range, according to the suit.
But the ordeal wasn’t over. The next day, Saturday, Hickox tested negative for Ebola. Yet, her detention continued. She asked for a shower, and was brought water for a sponge bath. She asked for clean clothes, and was given “only thin paper scrubs,” the suit said.
By now, her name was out. At a news conference, Christie described her as “obviously ill.”
“I’m sorry if in any way she was inconvenienced, but inconvenience that could occur from having folks that are symptomatic and ill out amongst the public is a much, much greater concern of mine,” the governor said.
Hickox’s family was worried, and she was scared — not about Ebola, but about her open-ended confinement. Despite a second negative test, she received a quarantine order. She already should have been freed, the suit said, and there was no clear way to challenge the order.
“Hickox felt frustrated, isolated, alone, and forgotten,” the suit said.
On Sunday morning, she remained asymptomatic and asked to see her lawyer. The department of health would not permit her to have visitors, but she was able to see counsel in the evening. And, the next day, she was released after hospital staff shook her hand with no protective gear.
Hickox didn’t seem impressed by the gesture. A Maine native, she returned to her home state, where she very publicly flouted voluntary quarantine — inspiring the ire of Rush Limbaugh, among other conservatives, alongside praise from more liberal outlets.
“Is this not a little bit sanctimonious?” Limbaugh said at the time. “I mean, here you volunteer and you let everybody know, by the way. … ‘I am a good person. I have volunteered to go to Africa, and I am helping Ebola patients. Look at me. See me? I am a good person.’ You come back, ‘I have just returned from Africa helping Ebola patients, and you are not going to quarantine me so that I can’t be noticed.’”
President Obama, meanwhile, questioned some states’ restrictive quarantines. He said those who tried to fight Ebola where it began deserved better.
“When they come home, they deserve to be treated properly,” he said, surrounded by doctors fresh from fighting the disease. “They deserve to be treated like the heroes that they are.”
Early Friday, Hickox blamed her ordeal on “politicians being irresponsible.”
“I would love to have a conversation with Chris Christie and talk about what his motives were,” she said, pointing out that she was isolated near last year’s midterm elections. “…. The most important thing in a leader is that they listen to the experts. Laws are in place to make quarantine based on science, not fear and discrimination.”
The governor’s office declined comment to the Associated Press. Last year, when faced with the prospect Hickox’s involuntary quarantine might bring legal action, Christie seemed unintimidated.
“I’ve been sued lots of times before,” the governor said. “Get in line. I’m happy to take it on.”