Bike-Riding Nurse Defies Ebola Quarantine, on Collision Course With Governor

Kaci Hickox
Kaci Hickox goes for a bike ride in Fort Kent, Maine. Ashley L. Conti/Bdn/Reuters

(Reuters) - A nurse who treated Ebola patients in Sierra Leone but has tested negative for the virus went for a bike ride on Thursday, defying Maine's order that she be quarantined in her home and setting up a legal collision with Governor Paul LePage.

Attorneys for Kaci Hickox, 33, said they had not yet been served with a court order to enforce the 21-day quarantine - matching the virus's maximum incubation period - but remained prepared to fight such an order if necessary.

LePage's office said negotiations with Hickox "have failed despite repeated efforts by state officials" and that he would "exercise the full extent of his authority allowable by law."

Kaci Hickox speaks to her lawyer Norman Siegel from a hospital quarantine tent in Newark, New Jersey, October 26, 2014. Steve Hyman/Handout via Reuters

Hickox left her home in the small Maine town of Fort Kent, along the Canadian border, and television news images showed her taking a morning bicycle ride with her boyfriend. Hickox has given the New England state a deadline of Thursday to lift an order that she remain at home until Nov. 10, or she will go to court.

"It's a beautiful day for a bike ride," said Hickox, wearing a helmet and other bike gear as she headed out for a three-mile (5-km) ride while police stationed outside her house stood by without trying to stop her, according to local media.

LePage's office said he offered to allow her to go for walks, runs or bike rides but prevent her from going into public places or coming within 3 feet (1 meter) of other people.

"I was ready and willing - and remain ready and willing - to reasonably address the needs of healthcare workers meeting guidelines to assure the public health is protected," said LePage, a Republican locked in a tough re-election battle.

President Barack Obama, who has criticized state mandatory quarantine policies for returning medical workers like Hickox, was scheduled to arrive in Maine later on Thursday to campaign for Democratic candidates, including Mike Michaud, who is trying to unseat LePage in Tuesday's midterm elections.

Asked for comment on Hickox's situation, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Maine that officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been in regular touch with public health officials in the state. "Ultimately, it is their decision," Earnest said.

Norman Siegel, one of Hickox's attorneys, defended his client's decision to go for a bike ride but noted that she avoided the center of town so as not to "freak people out."

"Since there's no court order, she can be out in public," Siegel said. "Even if people disagree with her position, I would hope they respect the fact that she's taking into account the fear, which is based on misinformation about the way the disease is transmitted."

Medical professionals say Ebola is difficult to catch and is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person and is not transmitted by asymptomatic people. Ebola is not airborne.

U.S. concern about the disease is high even though there is only one person in the country currently being treated for it, a New York doctor, Craig Spencer, who cared for patients in West Africa. Spencer, 33, remains in serious but stable condition, New York's Bellevue Hospital said on Thursday.

Hickox's confrontation with Maine highlights how states have been struggling to guard against Ebola without resorting to overzealous, useless precautions or violating civil rights.

She says she is completely healthy and has been monitoring her condition and taking her temperature twice a day.

Hickox tested negative for Ebola after returning from working with the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone, one of the three impoverished countries at the heart of the outbreak that has killed about 5,000 people there.

She previously blasted New Jersey Governor Chris Christie after she was taken from Newark's airport and put in isolation in a tent before being driven to Maine to spend the rest of her 21-day quarantine at home.

With elections coming Tuesday, Republicans aiming to take full control of the U.S. Congress have made criticism of Obama's response to Ebola - which they call inept and too weak - a part of their campaign message.

Some U.S. states have imposed automatic 21-day quarantines on doctors and nurses returning from treating Ebola patients in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Obama and other critics say such steps may discourage American doctors and nurses desperately needed there from volunteering.

New York officials on Thursday announced a program to encourage healthcare professionals to work in West Africa, an effort to deflect criticism of the Empire State's mandatory quarantine.

The program will provide financial incentives and employment protections similar to the benefits and rights provided to military reservists, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said jointly.

Bike-Riding Nurse Defies Ebola Quarantine, on Collision Course With Governor | U.S.