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US judge rejects attempt to isolate nurse

October 31, 2014

FORT KENT, Maine (AP) — A judge gave a nurse who returned to the state of Maine from West Africa the OK to go wherever she pleases, handing state officials a defeat Friday in America’s biggest court case yet over how to balance personal liberty, public safety and fear of Ebola’s worst outbreak ever.

Kaci Hickox must continue daily monitoring of her health but Judge Charles C. LaVerdiere ruled that there is no need to isolate her or restrict her movements because she has no symptoms and is therefore not contagious.

The judge also decried the “misconceptions, misinformation, bad science and bad information” circulating about the lethal disease in the U.S.

Hickox’s quarantine in Maine — and, before that, in New Jersey, upon her arrival back in the U.S. — led humanitarian groups, the White House and many scientists to warn that automatically quarantining medical workers could discourage volunteers from going to West Africa, where more than 13,500 people have been sickened and nearly 5,000 have died from Ebola.

After the ruling, a state police cruiser that had been posted outside Hickox’s home left, and she and her boyfriend stepped outside to thank the judge.

Hickox, 33, called it “a good day” and said her “thoughts, prayers and gratitude” remain with those who are still battling Ebola in West Africa.

She said she had no immediate plans other than to watch a scary movie at home on Halloween in this town of 4,300 people on the remote northern edge of Maine, near the Canadian border.

Maine health officials had gone to court on Thursday in an attempt to bar her from crowded public places and require her to stay at least 3 feet (1 meter) from others until the 21-day incubation period for Ebola was up on Nov. 10. She would have been free to jog or go bike riding.

But the judge turned the state down.

Gov. Paul LePage said he disagreed with the ruling but will abide by it. Officials said there are no plans to appeal.

Later in the day, the governor lashed out at Hickox, saying: “She has violated every promise she has made so far, so I can’t trust her. I don’t trust her. And I don’t trust that we know enough about this disease to be so callous.”

Hickox was thrust into the center of a national debate after she returned to the U.S. last week from treating Ebola victims in West Africa as a volunteer for Doctors Without Borders.

She contended that the state’s confining her to her home in what it called a voluntary quarantine violated her rights and was unsupported by science. She defied the restrictions twice, once to go on a bike ride and once to talk to the media and shake a reporter’s hand.

In his ruling, the judge thanked Hickox for her service in Africa and acknowledged the gravity of restricting someone’s constitutional rights without solid science to back it up.

“The court is fully aware of the misconceptions, misinformation, bad science and bad information being spread from shore to shore in our country with respect to Ebola,” he wrote. “The court is fully aware that people are acting out of fear and that this fear is not entirely rational.”

Hickox has been vilified by some and hailed by others. She has been getting a similarly mixed reaction from her health care colleagues.

On a popular nursing website, allnurses.com, some nurses felt the 21-day quarantine was a sensible precaution for those returning from a high-risk area, while others were more critical, accusing her of giving nurses everywhere a bad name.

Hickox has said she is following the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation of daily monitoring for fever and other signs of the disease. She tested negative for Ebola last weekend, but it can take days for the virus to reach detectable levels.

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Associated Press writers David Sharp and Patrick Whittle in Portland contributed to this story.

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