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Maine fails to reach quarantine compromise with nurse Kaci Hickox

It’s the type of battle made for flinty New England, where personal liberty vs. the government’s interpretation of public good has been a frequent theme. A nurse, hailed by some as a hero for helping treat Ebola patients in Africa, has defiantly rejected the power of Maine officials seeking to quarantine her in the name of protecting the public from a virus that the healthcare worker insists she doesn’t have.

Maine health authorities so far have failed to reach a compromise with nurse Kaci Hickox that would require her to keep her distance from other people. Hickox has personified the closely watched clash between personal freedom and fear of Ebola since she arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey last Friday and found herself in quarantine.

Early Thursday, Hickox stepped out of her home in Fort Kent, at the remote northern edge of Maine, and took a bicycle ride with her boyfriend. It was the second time in as many days that Hickox had flouted the state’s rules that she stay away from the public until Nov. 10, the end of the 21-day incubation period for the Ebola virus.

In a statement released to reporters, Gov. Paul LePage said Maine was willing to allow Hickox some leeway to leave her home as long as she avoided public places. Hickox has vowed to resist state quarantine rules because she is not ill and has tested negative for Ebola.

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“I was ready and willing — and remain ready and willing — to reasonably address the needs of healthcare workers meeting guidelines to assure the public health is protected,” said LePage, who is in the final days of a grueling campaign for reelection that is considered too close to call.

“Maine statutes provide robust authority to the state to use legal measures to address threats to public health,” LePage said in a statement. He refused to discuss what specific action the state would take, citing confidentiality rules.

Maine officials have said they would seek a court order to force Hickox to remain at home, a move that Hickox has vowed to fight. By the end of the usual court hours Thursday, no legal showdown had taken place.

The quiet end of the business day was in sharp contrast to the morning that began with Hickox and her boyfriend, Ted Wilbur, pedaling off on their bicycles on a sunny morning. They returned after about an hour.

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“I hope that we can continue negotiations and work this out amicably,” Hickox told reporters in nationally broadcast comments. “There is no legal action against me, so I’m free to go on a bike ride in my hometown.”

Hickox has pledged to fight any state action on civil liberties grounds.

“I’m not willing to stand here and let my civil rights be violated when it’s not science-based,” Hickox told reporters Wednesday night outside her home. She offered to shake hands with the journalists to prove that she did not represent any danger as a state trooper watched from the background.

Hickox returned last week from West Africa, where she was part of a medical team from Doctors Without Borders. She treated Ebola patients in the region where nearly 5,000 people are estimated to have died from the virus.

Arriving on Friday, Hickox was put in an unheated isolation tent in a hospital parking lot on orders of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, along with Christie, had imposed tough requirements on returning healthcare workers and anyone else deemed at risk of carrying the deadly virus, arguing that a quarantine was needed as a precaution despite the scientific consensus that a person who lacks symptoms is not contagious.

On Monday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines softer than Cuomo and Christie had imposed.

Top federal medical officials, politicians including President Obama and civil libertarians have argued that the virus cannot be spread by anyone who is asymptomatic. They have condemned the quarantine on a variety of grounds, including that it unfairly penalizes heroic healthcare workers who put their lives in danger to fight the virus in Africa, and discourages others from volunteering.

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Hickox reached out to the media about her predicament. Because she had no fever and tested negative for Ebola, Christie released her Monday but ordered that she travel to Maine by private vehicle. Maine imposed its own quarantine, with LePage citing public health concerns.

LePage is in a three-way race for reelection, with polls showing him running neck and neck against Democrat Michael H. Michaud, a six-term congressman and former president of the state Senate. The third candidate is Eliot Cutler, an independent who is considered to be a wild card.

Meanwhile in New York, Craig Spencer, the Manhattan doctor diagnosed with Ebola last week after treating patients in West Africa, remained at Bellevue Hospital in serious but stable condition, officials said.

Spencer is the only American known to be hospitalized with Ebola. Seven others have been successfully treated and released.

michael.muskal@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesmuskal

Times staff writer Lauren Raab contributed to this report.

 

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