The saga of Nurse Kaci Hickox, the Doctors Without Borders nurse who returned from fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone a week ago only to be locked in a New Jersey quarantine tent and deported back to Maine, took some weirdly dramatic turns yesterday. Maine Governor Paul LePage (R) had vowed to seek a court order against Hickox if she refused to obey a "voluntary" yet coerced 21-day quarantine, a quarantine for which there is no medical basis. Nurse Hickox's response became national news, as Maine's threat sent her on the Bike Ride Heard 'Round The World. This footage of a throng of reporters breathlessly documenting a bike ride is surreal, but also noteworthy for what isn't in the picture:
As you can see, there are reporters swarming Kaci Hickox, and many of them got well within three feet of her as they approached her home, yet none of them wore protective gear. Even as they "report the controversy," as journalists unfortunately do on matters of settled science these days, their actions essentially confirm that Hickox is not a risk. This is bad journalistic theater.
LePage's response was also appropriately theatrical, as he concern-trolled about a concocted threat of mob violence against Hickox, and threatened to do... something if she got within three feet of anyone:
"The reason there's a police car there is to protect her, more than anybody. The last thing I want is for her to get hurt. But at the same token, her behavior is really riling a lot of people up. And, you know, I can only do what I can do. We're trying to protect her, but she's not acting as smart as she probably should.
"Let's put it this way. I am gonna use the legal provisions to the fullest extent that the law allows me. And I just hope that she recognizes that."
LePage is probably correct that a lot of people in Maine aren't happy with Hickox's decision to defy the quarantine order, but does he expect anyone to believe that a portion of the populace that is afraid to get within three feet of Hickox is going to express that in a fit of mob violence? By inventing this threat, LePage is even further reinforcing the false idea that Hickox is a danger. Lest you think that this mob violence thing was an off-the-cuff thing, LePage brought it up earlier in the day, and in a far more obviously hollow way:
"She told us she was gonna do it. The day Obama came, she was gonna have no more restrictions. And so, she's playing on my patience.
"If she gets hurt, I don't want her to get hurt in Maine."
Wait, what? What does Obama have to do with this, and where, exactly, would LePage like for Hickox to go to get hurt? The answer to both of those questions is politics, the most base, theatrical kind of politic. Hickox has become a stand-in for President Obama, who has been vocally critical of these quarantine policies, and his "concern" for her safety is a hollow political concoction at best. At worst, if Hickox does become a victim of hysteria-induced violence, it will probably be because LePage planted the idea. He also shopped Hickox a face-saving fallback yesterday that would have freed her from quarantine completely, if she'd only pass a third Ebola blood test.
LePage's threat of "legal provisions" took shape late Thursday in the form of a temporary court order that split the baby between total quarantine and total freedom. It says that Hickox can leave her home, but must avoid getting within three feet of anyone, avoid public transportation, and remain in Fort Kent until the court makes a final determintion.
Maine's quarantine law, like many states' quarantine laws, gives the government road authority to adopt emergency rules, but not quite broad enough:
In the event of an actual or threatened epidemic or public health threat, the department may declare that a health emergency exists and may adopt emergency rules for the protection of the public health relating to:
A. Procedures for the isolation and placement of infected persons for purposes of care and treatment or infection control;
Kaci Hickox has tested negative for Ebola twice, is not symptomatic, and is, hence, not an infected person. In order for LePage to make good on his threat, the quarantine law requires the government to meet an admittedly vague but high-sounding bar:
Upon the department's submission of an affidavit showing by clear and convincing evidence that the person or property which is the subject of the petition requires immediate custody in order to avoid a clear and immediate public health threat, a judge of the District Court or justice of the Superior Court may grant temporary custody of the subject of the petition to the department and may order specific emergency care, treatment or evaluation.
The temporary order is a bad sign, but the courts are not the Powerball, you shouldn't be able to get there with a dollar and a dream of Ebola transmission. LePage's actions thus far, and medical science, show that Hickox is not a threat, and as long as she is monitored for symptoms, will never be one. The court should resist bowing to political pressure that has made Hickox a partisan football.
For Kaci Hickox, the stakes are very real, and very important. Aside from her own safety and freedom, she's fighting for all of the other doctors and nurses who are fighting Ebola in Africa, and who, according to Doctors Without Borders, are experiencing "anxiety and confusion" about "what they may face when they return home," which now includes the threat of mob violence. Her cause may have become political for some, but it's dead serious to her, and to those trying to save the world from Ebola.
Update: Kaci won today's round. A judge rejected Maine's quarantine order, instead requiring Hickox to continue monitoring, and coordinate any travel with state officials. A full hearing is scheduled for next week.