Maine governor: Ebola quarantine talks fail with nurse Kaci Hickox

Gov. Paul LePage announced the breakdown on Thursday and pledged to use the 'full extent' of his legal authority to safeguard public health, setting the stage for a court showdown.

Whitney Hayward/Portland Press Herald/AP
Kaci Hickox and boyfriend Ted Wilbur take questions from the media outside her home in Fort Kent, Maine, on Wednesday. State police plan to monitor the movements and interactions of Hickox, who vowed to defy the state's quarantine for health-care workers who treat Ebola patients, but troopers cannot take her into custody without a judge's permission. Hickox, who volunteered in Sierra Leone with Doctors Without Borders, was the first person forced into New Jersey's mandatory quarantine for people arriving at the Newark airport from three West African countries. She spent the weekend in a tent in New Jersey before traveling to the home she shares with her boyfriend, a nursing student.

Negotiations have broken down between Maine officials and a nurse who refuses to submit to a three-week quarantine following her return from treating Ebola patients in West Africa.

Gov. Paul LePage announced the breakdown on Thursday and pledged to use the “full extent” of his legal authority to safeguard public health.

The announcement sets the stage for what could become a showdown in the courts over the power of individual states to enforce tougher quarantine requirements than are called for by the national Centers for Disease Control.

In an apparent act of defiance, the nurse, Kaci Hickox, left her home on Thursday morning to take a bike ride with her boyfriend. To do so, they passed Maine State Police officers who were assigned to monitor their house and their movements.

“I was ready and willing – and remain ready and willing – to reasonably address the needs of healthcare workers meeting guidelines to assure the public health is protected,” Governor LePage said in a statement. But he said those efforts had so far failed.

The governor did not specify what legal action would be taken. He said officials had “multiple options,” but that specifics could not be discussed publicly because of confidentiality requirements in such cases.

Ms. Hickox is refusing to agree to demands by state health officials that she remain in or near her northern Maine home for the duration of the 21-day incubation period for Ebola. She has so far tested negative for the virus.

“I am completely healthy,” she has told reporters. “You could hug me. You could shake my hand.”

The nurse says she should be able to self-monitor her condition and seek quarantine only if initial symptoms of Ebola are detected. She said Maine officials are being overly restrictive of her rights and her freedom.

Hickox’s approach would be in accord with general guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control. But some state governments have concluded that the federal guidelines are not strict enough. 

New Jersey, New York, and Illinois beefed up their regulations after a doctor in New York City who recently returned from West Africa tested positive for Ebola.

Health officials had to try to retrace his movements throughout the city, including on the subway system, and test and monitor those with whom he was in contact.

Hickox made national headlines last week after she became the first person detained under New Jersey’s tough new quarantine regime. She spent much of the weekend confined to a quarantine tent after arriving at Newark International Airport from Sierra Leone, where she was working with the relief group Doctors Without Borders treating Ebola patients.

She complained that she was being mistreated and she threatened to sue New Jersey unless she was released.

New Jersey officials agreed to allow her to be transported to her home in Fort Kent, Maine, on the state’s northern border with Canada. 

But once there, Hickox and Maine officials were unable to agree on an acceptable arrangement.

LePage said the proposed regime would have permitted some travel outside the home but also would have excluded her from busy public places and work sites. 

“These guidelines would allow an individual in the ‘some risk’ category to go for walks, runs, or ride their bicycle, but would prevent such a person from going into public places or coming within three feet of other people in non-congregate gatherings,” the governor’s statement said. 

The statement added that LePage “remains willing to enter into such an agreement, on a case-by-case basis, with traveling healthcare workers who meet this definition.”

Hickox is being supported by lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union.

In a statement on Thursday, the ACLU of Maine said that Hickox is a trained medical professional and is following medical guidelines endorsed by the New England Journal of Medicine.

“She poses neither a clear nor imminent threat to public safety,” said Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine. “While there are situations where protecting public health would justify limits on civil liberties, this isn’t one of them.”

Ms. Beyea added: “Extreme measures like mandatory quarantines and police intervention raise serious concerns about government overreach, not to mention frighten the public. This is a public health situation and our response should be guided by sound medical science, not by fear.”

The confrontation with Hickox comes as LePage is in the midst of a tight re-election campaign. President Obama was expected to make an appearance in Maine Thursday evening in support of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud.

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