(Adds Maine hearing, Oregon woman hospitalized, Canada visa ban)
By Joel Page
FORT KENT, Maine, Oct 31 (Reuters) - Declaring Ebola fears in the United States “not entirely rational,” a judge rejected Maine’s bid for a quarantine on a nurse who treated victims of the disease in West Africa but tested negative for it, and instead imposed limited restrictions.
Nurse Kaci Hickox’s challenge of Maine’s 21-day quarantine became a key battleground for the dispute between officials in some U.S. states who have imposed strict quarantines on health workers returning from three Ebola-ravaged West African countries and the federal government, which opposes such measures.
Public concern about the spread of the virus is high in both the United States and Canada. Canada became the second developed nation after Australia to bar entry for citizens from the three West African nations where Ebola is widespread.
Some U.S. politicians have called for a similar travel ban, making Ebola as much of a political issue as a public health question.
The most deadly outbreak of the disease on record has killed nearly 5,000 people, all but a handful of them in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Only one person in the United States is currently being treated for Ebola, a New York doctor, Craig Spencer, who cared for patients in West Africa.
An Oregon resident was hospitalized on Friday for a possible Ebola infection after traveling to West Africa, according to state health officials. The woman registered a high temperature and is in isolation and not a danger to the public, Oregon Health Authority said.
Maine Governor Paul LePage said that while he was disappointed by the order from Charles LaVerdiere, the chief judge of Maine District Court, the New England state would abide by it. LePage’s office did not respond to questions about whether the governor would appeal the ruling.
The issue is not yet legally closed. The order will remain in effect until at least next week, when LaVerdiere has scheduled a hearing on the case. The hearing is expected to last two days starting on Tuesday morning, according to a scheduling order, and will give lawyers for the state another opportunity to plead their case before the judge for more restrictions on Hickox’s ability to travel freely in public, if they wish to.
Hickox, 33, said she was pleased with the ruling and said people need to “overcome the fear.”
On Thursday, the nurse defied the state’s quarantine order and went on a bike ride with her boyfriend. That prompted the governor to try to enforce her quarantine at home through the courts.
In Friday’s order, LaVerdiere said, “the court is fully aware of the misconceptions, misinformation, bad science and bad information being spread from shore to shore in our country with respect to Ebola.
“The court is fully aware that people are acting out of fear and that this fear is not entirely rational. However, whether that fear is rational or not, it is present and it is real,” the judge added, saying Hickox should follow three restrictions even though she is “not infectious.”
After a hearing held by telephone, LaVerdiere decided that Hickox must continue direct monitoring of her health, coordinate travel plans with health officials and report any symptoms.
Speaking to reporters alongside boyfriend Ted Wilbur outside her two-story clapboard house in the small town of Fort Kent along the Canadian border, Hickox said she would comply.
“It’s just a good day,” Hickox said. “I am taking things minute by minute. Tonight, I am going to try to convince Ted to make me my favorite Japanese meal. And I think we’re going to watch scary movies since it’s Halloween.”
Hickox 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.
She said he hoped to be able to return for more work in West Africa. “I love working overseas. It’s been a large part of my life since 2006,” Hickox said.
“I know that Ebola is a scary disease. I have seen it face-to-face and I know that we are nowhere near winning this battle,” she added.
In an interview, the nurse’s attorney, Norman Siegel, called the decision “a terrific win for Kaci. It validates what she’s been saying.”
In a statement, LePage said, “As governor, I have done everything I can to protect the health and safety of Mainers. The judge has eased restrictions with this ruling and I believe it is unfortunate. However, the state will abide by law.”
Following the ruling, state troopers who had been stationed outside Hickox’s home departed.
The Republican governor has been in a tough, three-way re-election battle that culminates in Tuesday’s elections.
Medical professionals say Ebola is difficult to catch and is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person and is not transmitted by asymptomatic people. Ebola is not airborne.
Public health experts, the United Nations, federal officials and even President Barack Obama have expressed concern that state quarantines for returning doctors and nurses could discourage potential medical volunteers from fighting the outbreak at its source in West Africa.
In New York on Friday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power defended federal guidelines for monitoring healthcare workers returning from the three Ebola-stricken countries.
Power spoke at a Reuters Newsmaker event hours after returning from a four-day trip to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. She said she believed current federal guidelines for returning healthcare workers balanced “the need to respond to the fears that this has generated” in the United States with the known science on the disease.
Additional reporting by Joseph Ax, Jonathan Allen, Courtney Sherwood, David Ljunggren, Jeffrey Hodgson and Brendan O'Brien; Writing by Will Dunham and Bill Rigby; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Grant McCool and Lisa Shumaker