Kaci Hickox, the nurse who’s being quarantined in New Jersey despite the fact that she’s not showing any symptoms of Ebola, is now planning to sue the state to get her released. Hickox, a 33-year-old nurse with degrees from the University of Texas and Johns Hopkins University, has been held in isolation since she returned to the country after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone.
The impending lawsuit would mark the first legal challenge against the controversial quarantine policies for returning health workers that have recently been enacted in states like New Jersey, New York, and Illinois over the objections of public health experts. The civil rights lawyer working with Hickox says her constitutional right to due process was violated when she was forced into isolation before showing any symptoms of the deadly virus.
Hickox wasn’t aware of New Jersey’s new policy until she landed at Newark Liberty International Airport on Friday. Since then, she says her experience has been marked by “a frenzy of disorganization and fear.” After being isolated at the airport for seven hours, she was moved to University Hospital in Newark, where she’s reportedly been kept in an unheated tent next to the hospital building, wearing paper scrubs and unsure of what’s in store for her over the next few days. She has tested negative for Ebola twice.
Hickox had planned to self-isolate herself in her home in Maine and carefully monitor her health for any signs of Ebola, just like Doctors Without Borders advises their volunteers to do. But a health worker living in New York City who recently tested positive for Ebola after volunteering in Western Africa has prompted widespread concern about whether workers coming back from the region should be allowed to return to their communities.
“This is an extreme that is really unacceptable, and I feel like my basic human rights have been violated,” Hickox told CNN in her first TV interview on Sunday, pointing out that state laws should be driven by public safety rather than by mass anxiety. “For the first 12 hours, I was in shock. Now I’m angry.”
Hickox met with lawyers on Sunday to discuss her legal options. According to initial reports, they plan to argue that, while the government does have the right to impose quarantines to safeguard public health, New Jersey’s new policy is overly broad and should not have been applied to Hickox at this point.
“She’s fine. She’s not sick,” one of her new lawyers, Steven Hyman, told CNN. “She went and did a magnanimous thing and deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, not put in isolation because some political leaders decided it looks good to do that.”
Health experts agree. Doctors Without Borders, the international aid organization that Hickox volunteered with in Western Africa, has expressed concern about Hickox’s isolation, saying that measures to protect public health must be balanced against the rights of health workers returning from fighting the Ebola outbreak on the front lines. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top official at the National Institutes of Health, has called the new quarantine policies “draconian.” And the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, the leading group for doctors working to combat contagious diseases, came out in opposition to the policy this weekend, citing evidence that the virus is not contagious when health workers are not displaying any symptoms.
Perhaps most problematically, a mandatory quarantine for returning health workers could dissuade people like Hickox from volunteering in an area that is desperate for outside assistance to combat Ebola. “I had tried to help when much of the world has looked on and done nothing,” Hickox wrote in an essay about her experience published in the Dallas Morning News. “I sat alone in the isolation tent and thought of many colleagues who will return home to America and face the same ordeal. Will they be made to feel like criminals and prisoners?”
Under pressure from the Obama administration to reverse the new 21-day quarantine policy for health workers, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) announced late on Sunday night that people returning from Western Africa are allowed to be isolated in their own homes rather than in hospitals. Despite the fact that Hickox lives in Maine, Christie’s office maintains that this is not a policy change. Her lawyers are unclear about what the announcement may mean for her release.
On Monday morning, the New York Times reported that Hickox will likely be allowed to return home to Maine to finish the rest of her mandatory quarantine. Gov. Christie said she can leave New Jersey on Monday afternoon if officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approve the move. “Since the patient had direct exposure to individuals suffering from the Ebola Virus in one of the three West African nations, she is subject to a mandatory New Jersey quarantine order,” a statement from the governor’s office reads. “Health officials in Maine have been notified of her arrangements and will make a determination under their own laws on her treatment when she arrives.”