FORT KENT, Maine — A nurse who treated Ebola patients in West Africa vowed to end her voluntary quarantine, even going so far as to step out of her home and shake a reporter’s hand, signaling a showdown with state police monitoring her and state officials seeking to legally enforce her confinement.
Kaci Hickox broke her quarantine by leaving her home with her boyfriend and speaking briefly to reporters in her driveway on Oct. 29. State and local police could only watch from across the street because a judge hadn’t signed off on a court order sought by state health officials.
She reiterated that she planned to fight the state’s quarantine and said there was no need to stay inside because she’s not exhibiting any symptoms.
“I’m not willing to stand here and let my civil rights be violated when it’s not science-based,” she told reporters before returning inside.
One of her lawyers, Norman Siegel, said she isn’t willing to cooperate further unless the state lifts “all or most of the restrictions.” But state officials continued to assert that she should remain in isolation until Nov. 10, the end of the 21-day incubation period for Ebola.
A judge would have to grant the state’s request in what could serve as a test as to the legality of state quarantines during the Ebola scare.
Until an order is signed by a judge, state police will monitor Hickox’s movement and interactions if she leaves her home but can’t physically detain her, said Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew.
Generally, states have broad authority when it comes to such matters. But Maine health officials could have a tough time convincing a judge that Hickox poses a threat, said attorney Jackie L. Caynon III, who specializes in health law in Worcester, Massachusetts.
“If somebody isn’t showing signs of the infection, then it’s kind of hard to say someone should be under mandatory quarantine,” he said.
Ebola, which is spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, has killed thousands of people in Africa, but only four people have been diagnosed with it in the United States. People can’t be infected just by being near someone who’s sick, and people aren’t contagious unless they’re sick, health officials say.
Guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend monitoring for health care workers like Hickox who have come into contact with Ebola patients. But some states, including Maine, are going above and beyond guidelines.
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. Hickox spent the weekend in a tent in New Jersey before traveling to the home of her boyfriend, a nursing student at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.
Gov. Paul LePage commended all health care workers who have volunteered in Africa to treat Ebola patients. But he said the state must be “vigilant” to protect others.
Maine law allows a judge to grant temporary custody of someone if health officials demonstrate “a clear and immediate public health threat.”
The state’s court filing was expected late Wednesday or early Thursday, officials said. If a judge grants the state’s request, then Hickox will appeal the decision on constitutional grounds, Siegel said.
“Our position is very simple: There’s no justification for the state of Maine to quarantine her,” he said.
Hickox made her point when she stepped outside the home. After speaking to reporters, she shook a hand offered by one of the reporters.
By Robert F. Bukaty. AP writers David Sharp in Portland and Alanna Durkin in Augusta contributed to this report