FORT KENT, Maine — On Friday afternoon Kaci Hickox, the nurse released from isolation after returning last week to the U.S. from West Africa, where she treated Ebola patients, thanked the residents of Fort Kent for their support and assured them she was sensitive to their concerns.
But not everyone in this northern Maine community is convinced Hickox has their best interest at heart and some say the fears people have of possibly being exposed to Ebola are negatively affecting local businesses.
The situation “is bound to affect the whole town,” Steve Daigle, owner of Stevie D’s Panini Plus said Friday. “The economy around here is already so fragile, every dollar we lose hurts us.”
Daigle said he has spoken to several customers who have told him they plan to shop out of town until the 21-day incubation period for the virus ends for Hickox on Nov. 10.
“People are afraid,” Daigle said.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines do not require isolation for individuals deemed at “some risk” of exposure to Ebola who show no symptoms of illness. Medical professionals say Ebola is difficult to catch and is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person. The virus is not transmitted by asymptomatic people and Ebola is not airborne.
While writing that public fears remain unfounded, the judge who ruled Friday that the state could not prevent Hickox from going out in public urged her to “demonstrate her full understanding of human nature and the real fear that exists.”
On Friday, another business owner in Fort Kent, who did not want to give his name, said he, too, has heard from customers planning to shop out of town in the wake of the Ebola concerns.
A local dentist also voiced his displeasure that Hickox has not committed to home quarantine.
“I think that is very irresponsible of her,” Dr. Lucien Daigle said. “She cannot guarantee 100 percent she will not become symptomatic [and] in that worst-case scenario the ramifications will be beyond what you can imagine.”
There already has been an adverse impact, Daigle said, pointing out the numerous cancellations of routine and elective procedures at Northern Maine Medical Center.
Earlier this week Peter Sirois, chief executive officer at NMMC, said the hospital had dealt with 10 such cancellations on Tuesday alone.
“It’s not acceptable she is doing this,” Daigle said. “Especially from a health care provider; why would she want to do this?”
Daigle said he fears the negative attention Hickox is generating will eventually detract from the good work she did in Sierra Leone.
He said it is understandable people in Fort Kent are concerned and they should not be faulted for that.
“People are very caring around here,” he said. “But don’t put them at risk.”
Over at Rock’s Diner, owner Peter Pinette said sentiments are running 50-50 about Hickox.
Pinette said there could be a possibility of an economic hit on the area, but added his diner has been busy all week as members of state and national press come in for breakfast and lunch.
“It has not hurt our business,” Pinette said.
Don Guimond, Fort Kent town manager, said there is a certain amount of fear from residents in the town.
“That is unfortunate,” he said. “There is no danger to anyone whatsoever. This individual does not have any symptoms, has not been in the community and has been following the CDC guidelines.”
All week long, staffers at the Fort Kent Town Office have been fielding phone calls from around the country about the Hickox case.
“At first, the calls were from people almost panicking about Ebola in Fort Kent,” Guimond said. “Now we are getting calls from people showing a lot more common sense but who are concerned.”
Guimond is hoping the press surrounding Hickox does not have a prolonged negative effect on his town.
“The community has not done anything wrong,” Guimond said. “But this type of publicity does not do anyone any good and people need to know we are open and ready to provide services to people here.”
Tom Pelletier, Fort Kent’s chief of police, said he has been getting calls from people wanting him to arrest Hickox.
“There is no reason for that,” he said. “She is abiding by the law.”
For now, Hickox said Friday, she has no immediate plans to go into town, though she did say she is taking things “minute by minute.”
Pelletier is hoping people remain calm and keep in mind Hickox is not a danger to anyone.