Why The Maine Nurse’s Bike Ride Is Not A Threat To Public Health

Nurse Kaci Hickox, right, and her boyfriend, Ted Wilbur ride bikes on a trail near her home in Fort Kent, Maine, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ROBERT F. BUKATY
Nurse Kaci Hickox, right, and her boyfriend, Ted Wilbur ride bikes on a trail near her home in Fort Kent, Maine, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ROBERT F. BUKATY

Days after leaving a New Jersey quarantine station, American nurse Kaci Hickox remains adamant to let science, and not political decisions, guide her movements. So on Thursday morning, she ignored orders to stay home and went on a bike ride with her boyfriend along a trail in her home state of Maine.

Despite threats of court orders from Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R), Hickox shows no signs of budging, noting that there’s no need to follow the state’s 21-day quarantine order since she tested negative for Ebola and hasn’t shown symptoms since returning from working in Sierra Leone.

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“I’m not willing to stand here and let my civil rights be violated when it’s not science-based,” Hickox told reporters on Wednesday evening. In an effort to prove she’s not dangerous to be around, Hickox shook the hands of one of the reporters there.

The showdown between the Doctors Without Borders nurse and state officials comes in a midst of a public debate centered on the most effective means to stop Ebola’s spread in the United States. But Hickox’s act of defiance is an example of exactly why experts are saying it’s unnecessary to confine health workers returning from Western Africa to their homes: It’s very unlikely that she could have put anyone in danger while biking less than a mile down a quiet road.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Ebola can only be transmitted through the blood and bodily fluids of infected people. That’s why the virus poses the highest risk to health care workers caring for Ebola patients and family members of the infected. But simply being in the same area as someone with Ebola doesn’t necessarily put people at risk because the virus isn’t airborne. Plus, those who aren’t showing symptoms cannot transmit the virus.

In new guidance for health workers who recently returned from Ebola-stricken areas, CDC Director Tom Friedan even suggested that while asymptomatic individuals should avoid crowded public places, there’s little harm in taking part in “non-congregant” activities like jogging or bike riding. The CDC head has also recommended that health workers’ movements should only be restricted on a case-by-case basis.

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But proponents of mandatory quarantines, which are being put in place in an increasing number of states, say it’s better to be safe than sorry. It’s unclear exactly what action Maine will take against Hickox, but LePage has said he will force the nurse to abide by the quarantine, which will likely involve filing a court order.

Hickox is also preparing a legal response. She has hired civil rights lawyers who say that the conditions that the state are requiring she stays under are unconstitutional and illegal. While some experts speculate that Hickox’s legal team will argue that Maine’s quarantine laws are overly broad, others say that courts have deferred similar decisions to state health officials during public health emergencies.

While President Barack Obama does not have the authority to end states’ mandatory quarantines, he has spoken out against them, asking officials to adhere to scientific evidence rather than fear. “When I hear people talking about American leadership, and then are promoting policies that would avoid leadership and have us running in the opposite direction and hiding under the covers, it makes me a little frustrated,” Obama said on Wednesday.