FORT KENT, Maine — In any other circumstance, it would be the furthest thing from a headline: Maine nurse leaves home on bike.
And yet Thursday, when Kaci Hickox and her boyfriend left their house in the tiny town of Fort Kent and pedaled along a long country road, law enforcement vehicles took off after her.
About an hour later, they came back. A throng of journalists met her and photographed her. She went back into the house.
Hickox has become the center of attention — and debate — about whether health care workers should be quarantined after they treat Ebola patients. When she returned from a month in Sierra Leone last week, officials said she had a temperature at an airport in Newark, New Jersey, and she was put into isolation.
She blasted New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for enforcing a new policy that required anyone who was showing symptoms of Ebola — an elevated temperature is one — to be quarantined for 21 days, the virus’s incubation period.
Hickox has twice tested negative for Ebola, says she feels healthy, and upon returning to her home state of Maine has publicly said that she intended to defy that state’s similar quarantine order.
Apparently, she did Thursday.
Is it fear or facts?
That question is at the heart of the standoff between her and Maine officials.
“The worst thing would be is if she steps out of her house in the next hour and they try to put handcuffs on her,” Hickox’s lawyer Norm Siegel said on CNN on Thursday, before his client left her home.
On Thursday morning, Hickox’s attorneys plan to talk with state authorities to find a resolution, Siegel said.
State troopers have been parked outside the home where Hickox has been staying in Fort Kent, a town of 4,000 near Maine’s northern border.
“If we’re going to have a disagreement, let’s have the disagreement in a court of law, not in the streets of Maine.”
Siegel said Maine authorities must obtain a court order before they can arrest his client if she breaks quarantine. Once that order is secured, her legal team has three days to challenge it.
CNN asked Siegel if Hickox intends to go to work Thursday.
“I would hope the government officials in Maine have a reasonable, open mind about what’s going on and let’s not have an exacerbation of the tensions that already exist,” the attorney said.
Maine Health Commissioner Mary Mayhew said late Wednesday afternoon that the process has already begun to file a court order. Mayhew cited concerns about Hickox’s hands-on role in dealing with Ebola patients, as well as “concerns about the lack of reliability and the lack of trustworthiness in the information that has been received.”
“You need to be able to have trust and credibility in that information,” she said. “That makes her a higher risk.”
Mayhew also blasted what she called “the lack of leadership at the federal level” that has created “a patchwork quilt of state-by-state determinations,” vowing that “we will not stand by and exacerbate the situation in Maine.”
Mayhew said that officials have been “pleading for common sense, for an appreciation for the risks that exist.” She pointed to other states such as New Jersey, New York and Illinois that have implemented 21-day quarantines for health care workers returning from West Africa, over objections from some medical professionals and federal officials.
The health commissioner said she “did not understand” why Hickox is challenging what she calls a “common-sense approach” of staying home for three weeks.
That amount of time is significant because it may take that long between when a person gets Ebola and shows signs of it. Ebola, which spreads only via bodily fluids, not through the air, is contagious only when its carriers are showing symptoms, health officials say.
“(This is) a reasonable request to ensure — out of an abundance of caution — that we are protecting the people of this state,” Mayhew said.
Yet Hickox says she thinks the U.S. Constitution and science are on her side.
On Wednesday night, Hickox emerged from the home where she has been staying. She reiterated that she is healthy and free of any Ebola symptoms.
She said she is willing to compromise with the state. Hickox is open to travel restrictions, like barring her from public transportation and limiting her to the Fort Kent area.
“So I think there are things that, I know, work,” she said. “And I know all aid workers are willing to do those things. But I’m not willing to stand here and let my civil rights be violated when it’s not science-based.”
Having to defend herself and not being able to hug her friends, especially after four tough weeks in West Africa, are “painful (and) emotionally draining,” the nurse said. Hickox also said “it’s frustrating to hear nasty things,” saying her intention in going to Sierra Leone was to make “a difference in people’s lives,” and her aim now that she’s back is not “to put anyone at risk in this community.”
Obama champions Ebola caregivers
While he didn’t mention Hickox’s case specifically, President Barack Obama on Wednesday did speak to — and in support of — health care workers like her who have risked their lives and livelihoods by going to West Africa to help those in need. He characterized them as “heroes” who “deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
He also criticized those championing policies such as quarantines and travel bans, saying that America should firstly be praising, encouraging and supporting health care workers critical to curbing the Ebola epidemic rather than antagonizing them.
“When I hear people talking about American leadership and then are promoting policies that would avoid leadership and have us running in the opposite direction and hiding under the covers, it makes me a little frustrated,” Obama said.
The President and numerous infectious disease experts have stressed the importance of stopping Ebola at its source to combat the further spread of the virus to the rest of the world.
The World Health Organization reported Wednesday that there are more than 13,700 confirmed or suspected cases of Ebola, almost all in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The United Nations’ health authority projected about 5,000 deaths from the virus.
And those are only the ones that authorities have been able to count. In a region where health care access and record-keeping are limited, the WHO says the death toll may be especially undercounted. Some ill people who are seen by physicians and counted as Ebola cases may not stay for treatment and die of the disease, and the record-keepers won’t know to record their deaths.
The WHO has said that the mortality rate from the current outbreak, starting with the first death in December, is roughly 60% to 70%.