WASHINGTON, November 1, 2014 — Kaci Hickox is the 33-year-old nurse who returned recently to the United States from Sierra Leone, where she treated patients suffering from the Ebola virus. She and the virus are a focus of the last week of campaigning before national, state and local elections on Tuesday of next week.
Hickox has shown no symptoms of Ebola and has, while agreeing to self-monitor and receive frequent check ups, defied the state of Maine’s edict to spend 21 days in quarantine.
Hickox returned from West Africa on Friday, October 24, arriving at Newark Liberty Airport. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, just hours before, had announced an edict, in conjunction with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, mandating a 21 day quarantine. Hickox was directly placed in Christie’s sequester at Newark University Hospital. She described the treatment she received upon arrival at Newark Airport to the Dallas Morning News.
One after another, people asked me questions. Some introduced themselves, some didn’t. One man who must have been an immigration officer because he was wearing a weapon belt that I could see protruding from his white coveralls barked questions at me as if I was a criminal.
Hickox had questions of her own, but officials from the CDC and DHS weren’t interested in giving answers, only the barrage of questions aimed at Hickox. For seven hours, Hickox endured what seemed less like public health concern than an interrogation. Then she was taken to the University Hospital in a phlanx of eight Newark PD cars, lights and sirens flaring and blaring as if pursuing a suspect leaving an armed robbery. “I was tired, hungry and confused, but I tried to remain calm.” Kaci then described the situation at the hospital.
After my temperature was recorded as 98.6 on the oral thermometer, the doctor decided to see what the forehead scanner records. It read 101. The doctor felt my neck and looked at the temperature again. ‘There’s no way you have a fever,’ he said. ‘Your face is just flushed.’ My blood was taken and tested for Ebola. It came back negative. I sat alone in the isolation tent and thought of many colleagues who will return home to America and face the same ordeal. Will they be made to feel like criminals and prisoners?
Hickox, while in New Jersey, had a battle of wits and words with the contentious Governor. In a statement to the press justifying his quarantine order, Christie noted that Hickox was “obviously ill”, to which Ms. Hickox responded, “First of all, I don’t think he’s a doctor; secondly, he’s never laid eyes on me; and thirdly, I’ve been asymptomatic since I’ve been here,” Hickox told CNN Sunday.
Hickox threatened a legal suit over her confinement and evidently the Governor’s legal staff counseled him to allow her, after 65 hours of confinement in an isolation tent, to leave the state and return to her home in Fort Kent, Maine, where another controversy awaited.
Norman Siegel, a noted civil rights attorney, prepared to file a suit on her behalf. Before that, Christie felt duty bound to issue a characteristically bellicose statement, “I’ve been sued lots of times before. Get in line. I’m happy to take it on.”
When asked whether Hickox’s threat of a lawsuit spurred her release, Christie responded, “It had absolutely nothing to do with (that). If she was continuing to be ill she’d have to stay. She hadn’t had any symptoms for 24 hours and she tested negative for Ebola. So there was no reason to keep her.”
This is interesting in light of the fact that Christie has been campaigning with Maine Governor Paul Le Page and when Hickox arrived in Maine, she was ordered by Le Page to remain in quarantine in her home for 21 days. Why, other than politics, would Hickox need to repeat the process? Hickox refused to abide by an order to stay in her home and yesterday enjoyed a bike ride with her boyfriend.
District Court Chief Judge Charles LaVerdiere ordered her to submit to “direct active monitoring,” coordinate travel with public health officials and immediately notify health authorities should symptoms appear. But he denied the state’s request to enforce confinement within her home. Another hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.
What seems obvious is that the policies that are driving the handling of returning healthcare workers from West Africa are not being driven by established medical protocol, but instead by the instincts of politicians to exploit the public’s fear of contagious diseases.
Doctors Without Borders, an internationally respected medical NGO, states that “forced quarantine of asymptomatic health workers returning from fighting the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is not grounded on scientific evidence and could undermine efforts to curb the epidemic at its source.”
Attorney Siegel, after the Judge’s ruling, commented, “She won. She is not quarantined. She can go out in the public. … (The judge) got the understanding of what liberty is about and how the government can’t restrict your liberty unless there is compelling justification.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Sunday in an interview with ABC:
Let’s not forget the best way to stop this epidemic and protect America is to stop it in Africa, and you can really help stopping it in Africa if we have our people, our heroes, the health care workers, go there and help us to protect America. If you put everyone in one basket, even people who are clearly no threat, then we have the problem of the disincentive of people that we need.
Of even more concern than discouraging healthcare workers from traveling to Africa where they are desperately needed, is the evident taking of the pulse of the American people by politicians, who believe that we are willing to trade our constitutional rights in exchange for the false protection of authoritarian and fear mongering public officials. Let’s hope that they find we are not so susceptible to such manipulation.
“You know I truly believe that this policy [the quarantine] is not scientifically or constitutionally just,” Hickox told the Today Show on Wednesday. “I am not going to sit around and be bullied by politicians and forced to stay in my home when I am not a risk to the American public.”
Kaci Hickox is a hero. Not just because she risked her health and well-being to give life sustaining care to the helpless and hopeless in Sierra Leone, but because she struck a blow for reason and the protections of the Constitution against opportunistic, over-reaching politicians. The fight is not over, but the first round goes to Kaci and other brave healthcare workers like her.