Nurse Kaci Hickcox Sues Chris Christie For Civil Liberties Violations During Ebola Quarantine
It was just about a year ago now, when the United States was caught up in the middle of fears about the Ebola virus making its way to the United States, that name Kaci Hickox entered the news. As you’ll likely recall, Hickox was among the many American health care workers who voluntarily went to the nations of West Africa most deeply impacted by the 2014 Ebola Outbreak to provide medical assistance and help curtail the spread of the disease. Several of those workers, unfortunately, ended up being infected by the virus themselves thanks mostly to the fact that they were working in often primitive conditions in which safety protocols were often hit-and-miss. Most of those workers were infected overseas and brought to the United States for treatment at Emory University in Atlanta, the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, and other facilities around the country. However, there were some cases of health care workers whose diagnoses wasn’t discovered until they reached home, the most notable of those being Dr. Craig Spencer, a doctor living in New York City who had been in West Africa and started displaying symptoms of Ebola nearly a week after he returned home, at which time he was admitted for treatment and, ultimately, released after the virus was eradicated from his body. In addition to Spencer’s case, the U.S. also dealt with the case of Timothy Eric Duncan, a Liberian citizen who had been unwittingly infected before flying to the United States and didn’t check into an American hospital until it was far too late for him to be treated. Duncan passed away, but not before infecting two health care workers at the hospital he was admitted to, Nina Pham and Amber Ray Vinson, who ended up having to undergo intensive treatment of their own that ended up being successful in both cases.
The Spencer case, along with the Duncan case and the two nurses he infected, helped set off something of a nationwide panic that caused certain restrictions to be implemented at airports accepting flights from the area of the Ebola outbreak. That wasn’t enough for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, though, both of whom used their authority over the New York City area airports to impose far greater restrictions on people arriving from West Africa. This is where Kaci Hickox comes in. She was detained at Newark Airport after arriving home from West Africa and not allowed to continue on to her connecting flight. Instead, she was taken into custody and detained in a tent outside a hospital in Newark, New Jersey before being allowed to return home to Maine. Once in Maine, that state’s Republican Governor Paul LePage, who just happened to be running for re-election, attempted to impose severe restrictions on Hickox’s liberty notwithstanding the fact that she displayed absolutely no symptoms of having the Ebola virus and that asymptomatic patients are not contagious. Governor LePage’s efforts were derailed by a Maine State Court Judge, who limited the requirements placed on Hickox to keeping local health authorities informed of her condition and location during the incubation period for the disease.
Now, Hickcox has filed a lawsuit alleging that Christie and other government authorities violated her civil liberties:
When Kaci Hickox returned from fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone last year, she was emotionally exhausted, jet-lagged and in no mood to sit in quarantine. The nurse had just spent a month working for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in a clinic where, she said, staff kept track of the number of survivors, not the number of patients who died.
“It was too difficult of a thing to think about,” she told The Washington Post in a telephone interview. “We had to focus on the positive.”
Hickox was convinced that MSF’s detailed infection control policies — which included hand-washing with chlorinated water, wearing protective gear and adhering to a “no-touch” policy — had protected her. Yet, after she arrived at Newark Airport, she was quarantined against her will as a governor with presidential aspirations — current Republican contender Chris Christie — said those returning from Ebola-stricken nations couldn’t be trusted to monitor themselves for symptoms, and developed screening procedures with the possibility of mandatory isolation.
“I don’t believe when you’re dealing with something as serious as this that we can count on a voluntary system,” Christie said at the time. “The government’s job is to protect [the] safety and health of our citizens. And so we’ve taken this action, and I absolutely have no second thoughts about it.” And polls eventually showed New Jersey residents approved of the action.
Now, however, Hickox, 34, has fired another shot in a war many thought over. In a lawsuit filed Thursday in New Jersey with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the rebel nurse is suing Christie and other state officials for $250,000, alleging false imprisonment, invasion of privacy and violation of due process, among other claims.
“The key issue here is that quarantine decisions that really go against all constitutional law should have due process, and politicians shouldn’t be allowed to make their own judgments,” she said. “… I think this is a really important thing to fight for in the United States.”
The suit details the alleged harsh treatment Hickox, who has a master’s degree in public heath and another in nursing, faced in the 80 hours she spend in state custody upon her return from Africa on Oct. 24, 2014. After her plane landed, she informed immigration she had come from Sierra Leone. Her temperature was taken and found to be normal. However, she was questioned “as if she were a criminal and was wearing a weapon belt.”
Early Friday, Hickox blamed her ordeal on “politicians being irresponsible.”
“I would love to have a conversation with Chris Christie and talk about what his motives were,” she said, pointing out that she was isolated near last year’s midterm elections. “…. The most important thing in a leader is that they listen to the experts. Laws are in place to make quarantine based on science, not fear and discrimination.”
The governor’s office declined comment to the Associated Press. Last year, when faced with the prospect Hickox’s involuntary quarantine might bring legal action, Christie seemed unintimidated.
“I’ve been sued lots of times before,” the governor said. “Get in line. I’m happy to take it on.”
On some level, this lawsuit isn’t terribly surprising given the fact that Hickcox had been particularly outspoken about what she felt was the unscientific basis for the policy that Christie was imposing on her. She was also stating as long ago as a year ago that she was considering filing a lawsuit against him and any other officials who were involved in what clearly was to any objective observer an unreasonable, unwarranted restriction on her civil liberties. As has been noted numerous times in connection with Hickcox’s case, while she did display an elevated temperature during her initial stop at Newark Airport, at least part of that can be attributed to the fact that she had been held alone in a small room for more than an hour without anyone answering her questions before her vital signs were taken. By the time she was transported to a hospital, all tests for any symptoms indicative of Ebola were negative and they continued to be negative during the entire time she was confined by New Jersey authorities. In the end, it turned out that Hickcox was not positive for Ebola at all and never once displayed any of the symptoms related to the disease after she returned home to Maine. In retrospect then, it is clear that the way she was treated was completely unjustified under the circumstances. More importantly, it was clear at the time that she was being treated unjustly by New Jersey authorities since there was no evidence that she was either infected with the virus, symptomatic with signs of the virus, or contagious to the point where she should have been considered a the kind of threat to public health properly subjected to quarantine. Indeed, the fact that New York and New Jersey ended up modifying their quarantine procedures in the wake of the Hickcox case was a tacit admission that the policies they had in place went to far and that Hickcox was treated inappropriately.
Jazz Shaw at Hot Air isn’t very sympathetic to Hickcox’s claims:
I find it hard to muster much sympathy for Ms. Hickox. Even the most libertarian among us would surely admit that your personal liberty and freedom to roam the public square can and should be limited if the possibility exists that that you’re carrying a communicable disease which decimated the populations of several areas in Africa. Even having tested negative for the disease was not, at least in the opinion of some medical authorities, an absolute assurance that the patient wouldn’t present symptoms later. Ms. Hickox is to be commended for her dedication to human life and willingness to risk her own to travel abroad and help people in distress. I just wish she had exhibited the same level of compassion for her fellow Americans upon her return when the cost she needed to pay was little more than sitting quietly and watching television for a couple of weeks on the government dime.
These points are well-taken, and it’s far too early in the process to judge the legal merits of Hickcox’s claim. On the surface, though, it strikes me that she has a very compelling argument in favor of her contention that she was unjustly detained and improperly treated based on the objectively available medical evidence about both her condition and the nature of the Ebola virus. As I noted in a long post about the legal issues surrounding quarantine, infectuous disease, and Constitutional rights, the government certainly does have the authority to quarantine people who are threats to the public health. That power, however, is not unlimited and, as we saw with the legal resolution of the Hickcox case once she returned to Maine, quarantine orders will be voided by a Court when they are not connected to any objective medical evidence and when the goals of the quarantine can be accomplished by less restrictive means. In Hickcox case, those less restrictive means included requiring her to submit to monitoring by local health authorities during the expected incubation period of the Ebola virus and to inform them immediately if she started displaying symptoms. While this may not be sufficient in some cases involving people outside the medical profession, Hickcox had more than enough personal knowledge regarding Ebola to be trusted to handle the matter on her own without having to be confined like a prisoner against her will. Given all of that, it was entirely proper for the Maine Judge to lift her quarantine restrictions and, it seems to me, entirely improper for New Jersey to have imposed the restrictions it did when she first arrived back in the United States. Now, we’ll see what a Court of law has to say about whether or not she’s entitled to damages for the ordeal she was unjustly subjected to.
Here’s the Complaint: