FORT KENT, Maine — A District Court judge will not allow state health officials to prevent nurse Kaci Hickox from entering public places or restrict her movements, according to a temporary order issued Friday.
Chief Judge Charles LaVerdiere ruled the Maine Department of Health and Human Services failed to prove that limiting Hickox’s movements was necessary to protect others from the danger of infection. Hickox, who recently returned to her home in Fort Kent after treating people with Ebola in Sierra Leone, has no symptoms of the virus.
“I am humbled today by the judge’s decision,” Hickox said during an impromptu press conference Friday afternoon in front of the Fort Kent home she shares with her boyfriend, Ted Wilbur, a nursing student at the University of Maine at Fort Kent. “I am even more humbled by the support we have received from the town of Fort Kent, the state of Maine, across the U.S. and even across the globe.”
“It’s a terrific win for Kaci,” said Norman Siegel, Hickox’s New York civil rights lawyer. “It validates what she’s been saying.”
The judge expressed appreciation for Hickox’s care of “individuals stricken with a terrible disease,” writing that “we owe her and all professionals who give of themselves in this way a debt of gratitude.”
She must continue, as she’s already agreed, to submit to regular monitoring, including daily temperature and symptom checks and visits by public health authorities, according to the order, filed in Fort Kent District Court. She also must coordinate any travel with the state and immediately notify health officials if she develops symptoms.
With this week’s legal action, Maine became the first state in the nation to go to court to enforce restrictions on an individual potentially exposed to Ebola, according to the Maine chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We are glad the court rejected the state’s attempts to force Kaci Hickox into custody,” Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, said in a statement. “Today’s ruling is a great reminder that such extreme restrictions were never justified by this situation, just as the ACLU and medical experts have been saying all along.”
The confrontation between Hickox and officials in Maine has become the focal point of a dispute pitting several U.S. states opting for strict quarantines against the federal government, which opposes such measures.
Gov. Paul LePage expressed disappointment with the judge’s decision Friday, saying the state would nonetheless abide by law.
“She’s violated every promise she’s made so far, so I can’t trust her,” he said Friday, answering reporters’ questions after a press conference celebrating a business opening in Yarmouth. “I don’t trust her.”
Shortly after Friday’s court order was publicly released, two state police troopers who had been stationed outside Hickox’s Fort Kent home to monitor her movements drove away.
In his order, LaVerdiere noted the irrational fears of Ebola and “misconceptions, misinformation, bad science and bad information being spread from shore to shore in our country” about the virus. While writing that those fears remain unfounded, LaVerdiere urged Hickox to “demonstrate her full understanding of human nature and the real fear that exists.”
On Friday, Hickox said she understands and is sensitive to those fears.
“I don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, and so far, Ted and I have shown a lot of respect to this community,” she said. “I am a nurse and a health care worker and don’t want to make people uncomfortable.”
Hickox, 33, tested negative for Ebola after returning from working for Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone. She also objected when the state of New Jersey put her into isolation when she arrived at Newark airport.
Hickox said it is only by continuing the discussion about Ebola that people will become educated on the disease.
“That is one of the reasons I am saying this battle is not over,” she said.
LePage stated earlier from Yarmouth, “We don’t know what we don’t know about Ebola. Therefore, I’m a little disappointed. But the monkey’s on [the judge’s] back, not mine. He made the decision. We will abide by the ruling.”
In contrast to the Republican governor, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills — elected to office in 2012 by Democratic majorities in the Maine House and Senate — lauded the judge’s ruling.
“I am especially pleased that a well-respected member of the Maine judiciary crafted an order based on medical science, an order that accommodates the important constitutional liberty interests of the individual and the public interest in minimizing any potential risk of a disease such as Ebola,” she said in a statement released late Friday afternoon.
Friday’s temporary order was the second issued by the court. The first, which enforced the stricter limits sought by the state, was issued Thursday and expired at 9 a.m. Friday. That came within hours of her defying Maine officials, leaving her home and going for a bike ride with her boyfriend.
The second temporary order will remain in effect until a hearing is convened to determine whether a permanent court order should be issued.
The hearing has been scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 4 and Wednesday Nov. 5, in Bangor, according to court documents.
The first, and now expired, court order granted the state’s desired restrictions, which temporarily banned Hickox from public transportation and public places, such as shopping malls and movie theaters, and stipulated she remain at least 3 feet away from other people when outside her home.
“The three points [the judge] still recommends I abide by are the three points I believe are part of this compromise we could make,” Hickox said. “I have been compliant with the direct monitoring the CDC recommends and will continue to be compliant.”
Not long after the press conference, a CDC worker arrived at Hickox’s house escorted by an officer from the Fort Kent Police Department.
According to Fort Kent Police Chief Tom Pelletier, the Maine State Police will no longer be stationed at the house.
At least one trooper has been parked across the road from the house all week to monitor Hickox’s movements.
“Up until now, the state police have been here for her safety and to monitor her,” Pelletier said Friday afternoon. “That was actually an assistance to us to help keep tabs on the goings on here.”
With the withdrawal of the troopers, Pelletier said it puts more of a burden on his four-man department.
“It’s a bit more taxing for us now to make sure they are safe here,” he said, “I certainly will need to provide assistance to them and making sure they stay safe.”
Pelletier said he intends to keep the lines of communication open between himself and the couple in case Hickox and Wilbur would need assistance should they plan to leave their home within the remaining monitoring time.
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.”
She and Wilbur planned to spend Halloween at home — with no candy for trick-or-treaters since they have not been able to do any shopping — and perhaps watch a scary movie.
Both court orders reflected U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for individuals deemed at “some risk” of exposure to Ebola who show no symptoms of illness. The guidelines serve only as recommendations, allowing state public health authorities discretion in whether to restrict the movements of individuals who fall under that category. The second order curbed the state’s leeway.
The CDC considers anyone who has had direct exposure to people infected with the Ebola virus within a 21-day incubation period at “some risk.” The federal guidelines do not call for isolation.
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. Ebola is not airborne.
It remains unclear where negotiations between Hickox and the state broke down. She refused to agree to a 21-day quarantine in her home that officials had initially sought and that would have run through Nov. 10. Health officials later backed off the home quarantine, seeking rather to restrict her movements.
Hickox had indicated she did not plan to comply after Thursday with some of the less restrictive measures the state subsequently pursued, according to an affidavit filed with the state’s petition by Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Sheila Pinette. Pinette did not specify which measures Hickox planned to refuse.
In her affidavit, Pinette said Hickox’s roommate in Africa was unknowingly infected with Ebola, adding that any potential risk to Hickox had passed.
The documents also shed light on Hickox’s movements after leaving New Jersey, where she was quarantined against her will after flying into Newark on Oct. 24. Maine public health officials contacted Hickox while she was en route to Maine, but she declined to call Pinette, according to the documents. In an email to public health authorities, Hickox said she planned to spend “a night or two” in Freeport before continuing her travels to her home in Fort Kent. Hickox changed her mind and traveled home before completing an agreement with Maine CDC, the documents state.
Eric Saunders, an attorney at Bernstein Shur in Portland who represents Hickox in Maine, said the judge agonized over Friday’s decision.
“We were all feeling very emotional,” Saunders said. “I have to tell you there were tears in some of the lawyers’ eyes when the judge read his decision. If you know anything about the bar, that’s a rarity.”
All of Hickox’s attorneys, including Siegel and New York lawyer Steven Hyman, represent her pro bono, Saunders said.
BDN writer Seth Koenig andReuters contributed to this report.