FORT KENT, Maine — A nurse released from isolation after returning to the U.S. from West Africa, where she treated Ebola patients, is not heading back to Fort Kent right away, according to local officials.
On Tuesday, there was no sign of Kaci Hickox or her boyfriend, Ted Wilbur, a University of Maine at Fort Kent nursing student, at the home they share in town, but that was not enough to ease the concerns of some residents who have changed or canceled planned medical procedures at the local hospital.
“People are canceling X-rays and other elective procedures,” Peter Sirois, chief executive officer at Northern Maine Medical Center, said Tuesday afternoon after a press conference at the hospital attended by representatives of multiple local and national media outlets. “Those cancellations are totally inappropriate [because] Kaci Hickox was never here, and even if she had been, the public would be perfectly safe.”
On Tuesday alone, Sirois said, more than 10 elective procedures had been canceled at the hospital by people concerned about Hickox’s anticipated presence in Fort Kent and possible Ebola exposure.
“There is no need to panic,” Dr. Michael Sullivan, NMMC chief medical officer, said at the press conference. “This is a scary disease, [but] with the appropriate health precautions, this is an easy disease to contain.”
Not only has Hickox tested negative for, and shown no symptoms of, Ebola, Sullivan said, she has not been to NMMC since returning from Sierra Leone on Oct. 24. Hickox, who treated Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, was placed in isolation against her will in a tent outside University Hospital in Newark after she flew into New York on Friday.
After she showed no symptoms, Hickox was discharged Monday and reportedly had been heading home to Maine for a self-imposed 21-day quarantine to ensure she developed no symptoms of the illness during the known incubation period.
On Tuesday night, her lawyers indicated she would not comply with Maine health officials’ requirements that she remain under quarantine at home for 21 days.
Earlier Tuesday, Sullivan said he has had no direct contact with Hickox, but he has been in contact with Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, who told him she is in contact with Hickox.
Hickox also has had direct communication with Maine Commissioner of Health and Human Services Mary Mayhew, Sullivan said.
“The Maine CDC knows where she is,” Sullivan said. “My understanding is Kaci is agreeing to direct and indirect monitoring by the CDC for the 21 days of isolation, but I do not know where she plans to do that.”
During her quarantine, which will last through Nov. 10, Hickox would provide twice daily temperature readings and have a daily direct monitoring session with a CDC official, he said.
“I do not know if that will be in person or by Skype,” Sullivan said.
During that time, Sullivan said, it is his understanding that Hickox is allowed to have visitors as long as neither she nor they are showing any symptoms of the Ebola virus.
Maine DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew concurred during a hastily called news conference at the department’s offices in Bangor late Tuesday afternoon.
“The way that goes right now is that anybody who remains at home with an individual that is placed at risk, who’s had exposure, if that patient does become symptomatic, all family members must agree to go into quarantine for a 21-day period,” Mayhew said.
“As we’ve indicated, the intent is to minimize public contact if they have family members who have become exposed to them and they later develop symptoms, those individuals would be subject to the 21-day quarantine.”
“If they had visitors, those visitors would be subject to the quarantine if the individual under quarantine develops symptoms.
According to Raymond Phinney, associate dean of student life and development at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, Wilbur told him last night that he was joining his girlfriend and that he would not be returning to campus for the next 21 days.
“He has made arrangements with his faculty to take his classes through online education for 21 days,” Phinney said Tuesday from UMFK. “With online education, he could be anywhere.”
According to Hickox’s attorney, Steven Hyman of the New York law firm McLaughlin & Stern, on Monday, she was en route to Maine from New Jersey by private car.
On Tuesday morning, vehicles from about a dozen national and state media outlets lined the road near the house Hickox and Wilbur share in town, though no one appeared home.
“The only information I have is she has left New Jersey and she was en route to Fort Kent with a possible stop along the coast of Maine,” Fort Kent Police Chief Tom Pelletier said Tuesday morning. “She has not been seen in [Fort Kent], and I have not gotten word if she is here.”
What Pelletier has gotten are dozens of calls from people concerned about Hickox’s presence in Fort Kent and any potential health impacts.
“There is a lot of concern out there,” he said. “I got a call from a person in Florida who has family up here and said they were worried about them.”
On Monday, staff at the Fort Kent town office said they had spent the day fielding similar calls, and they still were getting calls on Tuesday.
Pelletier also said he will begin monitoring two social media sites that were created late Monday and appear to be dedicated to keeping Hickox out of Fort Kent and Maine altogether.
By Tuesday, both sites had nearly 300 subscribers each.
“I can and will review those sites and make sure there are no serious threats to Miss Hickox’s safety,” Pelletier said. “We will do our best to make sure her rights are not violated and make sure her safety is assured if she comes home.”
Pelletier said he believes the public has no reason to be fearful of Hickox coming to Fort Kent, and any fears that may be out there are more the result of “the media frenzy” blowing it out of proportion.
“We are dealing here with a health care professional who has dealt with Ebola and is well educated on the disease and what it can do,” Pelletier said. “I truly believe she would be the first one to not put others in jeopardy.”
Pelletier pointed out that Hickox twice has tested negative for Ebola and is showing no symptoms.
“We want to try to keep control of the situation,” he said. “We do not need an all-out frenzy in town.”
Maine’s approach appeared to push the boundaries of revamped guidelines released Monday by federal health officials. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden called for isolation of people at the highest risk for Ebola infection but said most medical workers returning from the three African nations at the center of the epidemic — Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea — would require daily monitoring without isolation.
The federal CDC’s guidelines serve only as recommendations. States have leeway to develop their own protocols.
Maine will require “active monitoring” of all travelers with a history of direct contact with Ebola patients who exhibit no symptoms of the disease, according to the protocols.
Individuals under active monitoring who become ill would be rapidly isolated and evaluated.
Should Hickox or any other patient develop symptoms, Sullivan said NMMC would be prepared with a designated isolation area, trained staff and equipment to treat the individual until transfer could be arranged to the closest CDC approved regional care center, likely Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.
BDN writer Dawn Gagnon contributed to this report.