(Adds health policy expert, paragraph 21; Governor Cuomo, paragraphs 23-24)
By Susan Heavey and Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Saying she will not be bullied by politicians, a Maine nurse is giving the state an ultimatum: Lift her Ebola quarantine by Thursday or she will disregard the restrictions and go to court.
The saga of nurse Kaci Hickox illustrates how U.S. states are struggling to protect against the virus without resorting to overzealous and useless precautions or violating civil rights.
Hickox, 33, tested negative for Ebola after returning from treating patients in West Africa. She previously blasted New Jersey Governor Chris Christie after she was taken from Newark’s airport and put in quarantine in a tent before being driven to Maine to spend the rest of her 21-day quarantine at her home.
“I truly believe this policy is not scientifically nor constitutionally just, and so I am not going to sit around and be bullied around by politicians and be forced to stay in my home when I am not a risk to the American public,” Hickox, speaking from her home in the small Maine town of Fort Kent along the Canadian border, told NBC’s “Today” program.
“If the restrictions placed on me by the state of Maine are not lifted by Thursday morning, I will go to court to fight for my freedom,” Hickox added.
Hickox’s defiance did not sit well with Republican Governor Paul LePage, who said he would seek legal authority to keep her isolated at home until Nov. 10.
“While we certainly respect the rights of one individual, we must be vigilant in protecting 1.3 million Mainers, as well as anyone who visits our great state,” LePage said in a statement.
At a White House event, President Barack Obama scolded politicians who have sought quarantines or strict travel bans for caving into fears, although he did not mention anyone by name.
“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.
The president was flanked by three doctors in white lab coats and several other healthcare workers who have served in West Africa or will soon travel there. “When they come home, they deserve to be treated properly. They deserve to be treated like the heroes they are,” Obama said.
Even people who did not treat Ebola patients but traveled to West Africa are facing restrictions.
A Connecticut school superintendent defended the decision to keep a 7-year-old girl out of class for three weeks over concerns the girl might have contracted Ebola while at a wedding in Nigeria. The World Health Organization declared Nigeria Ebola-free days after the girl’s trip.
Hickox worked with the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone, one of the three nations at the heart of an outbreak that has killed about 5,000 people in West Africa. Liberia, the country worst-hit by the epidemic, may be seeing a decline in the spread of the virus, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday.
In several media interviews, Hickox said she was in good health and had not had any symptoms of the virus that would indicate she had become contagious. Hickox said she had been monitoring her condition and taking her temperature twice a day.
Her lawyer, Steven Hyman, told Reuters that Maine has no basis to arrest or detain her. “Such action would be illegal and unconstitutional and we would seek to protect Kaci’s rights as an American citizen under the Constitution. There is no medical risk and we have to deal with fact and not hysteria,” he said.
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.
Hickox said her last contact with an Ebola patient was on Oct. 21. The maximum incubation period for Ebola is 21 days.
Some U.S. states have imposed automatic 21-day quarantines on doctors and nurses returning from treating Ebola patients in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Republicans including Christie have accused Obama’s administration of doing too little to protect Americans from Ebola.
California, the most populous U.S. state, announced on Wednesday that people returning from Ebola-affected countries who have had contact with infected patients will be quarantined for 21 days. The policy offers a degree of flexibility, with local health officials allowed to “establish limitations of quarantine on a case-by-case basis.”
States have rushed new policies into place without figuring out the finer details.
“They’re making it up almost by the hour,” said Stephen Morrison, an expert in global health policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This is a collision between the political and the public health realms.”
Public health experts, the United Nations and medical charities - and Obama - oppose such steps as scientifically unjustified. They say such policies may discourage badly needed American doctors and nurses from volunteering to help.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed providing financial incentives to encourage healthcare workers to volunteer in West Africa.
“We’re looking at putting together a package analogous to military reservists who when they get called on duty: They still get pay, they still get benefits and they can’t be hurt in their current job,” he said. “I think we can get healthcare people to West Africa and still protect the public health here.”
Also on Wednesday, another American nurse who returned home from working with Ebola patients in Sierra Leone agreed to quarantine herself at home in Texas with twice-daily monitoring by state health officials for 21 days, officials said. The nurse, who was not identified, is asymptomatic.
Setting himself apart from his counterparts in Maine and New Jersey, Texas Governor Rick Perry, a possible 2016 Republican U.S. presidential candidate along with Christie, telephoned the nurse, calling her a hero.
Four people have been diagnosed with Ebola in the United States, with one death, a Liberian man who flew to Texas. Two of his nurses were infected, but both have recovered and are virus-free. The only patient now being treated for Ebola in the United States is a New York doctor, Craig Spencer, who was diagnosed last Thursday after treating Ebola patients in Guinea.
In another sign of alarm over Ebola felt in many U.S. communities, the University of North Carolina on Wednesday banned students from school-related travel to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. It said faculty and staff must seek prior approval to travel there for humanitarian or scientific reasons.
The Pentagon said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel approved a strict, 21-day quarantine-like monitoring period for all U.S. troops returning from the Ebola relief mission in West Africa.
Hagel also called for a review of the decision in 45 days. The new policy expands one put in place on Monday for Army soldiers to all branches of the military.
Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana, Jon Herskovitz in Texas, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C., Frank McGurty in New York and David Alexander, Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton in Washington and Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Grant McCool, Lisa Shumaker and Cynthia Osterman