Maine 'thinking locally' on Ebola nurse quarantine

Television cameras stand on the road across from the house of nurse Kaci Hickox in Fort Kent, Maine 30 October 2014 Image copyright AP

Even without the Halloween decorations adorning many of the houses, the small Maine border town of Fort Kent would have something of a ghostly feel.

There are few people on the streets, and little activity. Early this morning, it was just a few locals arriving in their pick-up trucks at the hardware shop on the main drag in town, and a couple of people dropping by a diner.

The only place where people have been congregating outside is the house where Kaci Hickox, the nurse who recently returned from treating Ebola patients in West Africa, is staying on a rural road on the outskirts of town. Surrounded by pine trees, the two-storey house is set on a spacious plot.

The closest neighbour is at least 100m (328ft) away. It's a fairly isolated spot on a fairly isolated road.

A police car is parked opposite the property, behind the long line of camera crews. Maine's Governor Paul LePage claims the state trooper is there not to protect the community from Ms Hickox, but rather the other way round.

Mr LePage will not get his way on Ms Hickox's isolation, at least not for now. On Friday, a judge rejected Maine's request - saying she should continue daily monitoring and co-ordinate travel with state officials.

From the local people we have talked with, there is clearly sympathy for the 33-year-old nurse and respect for the work she did in West Africa with the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontiers.

But there is also a strong feeling that, for the good of the community, she should abide by the 21-day quarantine procedures.

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Media captionKaci Hickox's case is fuelling a row about US policy on Ebola prevention

It is not so much that local people fear there is a high risk of catching Ebola. Most realise the nurse is asymptomatic - one woman told me there is a far higher danger of being hit by a moose while driving through the country roads. It is more a case that she should limit her movements to allay community concerns.

The lawns in Fort Kent studded with political placards are a reminder that state elections take place next Tuesday, which adds a political dimension.

So far Governor Paul LePage, who is up for re-election in a tight race, believes that public opinion is behind him imposing limits on the nurse's movements. But he is a savvy enough politician to know that local sentiment could shift if he is too heavy-handed.

The restraining order imposed on Ms Hickox, before a judge rejected it, which allowed for limited movement but no interaction with the public, was not just about public health.

Mr LePage clearly believed he had come up with the right political formula.

Maine wanted to keep her from going to public places where people are gathered and from leaving Fort Kent without first consulting public health authorities. No using public transport, no entering any workplace, unless to receive medical care. It did allow her to leave the house to take bike rides, jogs and walks, so long as she does not go within three feet of other people.

These are in line with federal guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for asymptomatic individuals in the high risk category.

Image copyright Reuters

But up until now, Mr LePage has described Nurse Hickox as being "some risk," where the federal guidelines only suggest many of those restrictions.

So far, she has left the property twice - on Wednesday night to speak to reporters, and on Thursday morning for a bike ride with her boyfriend through a country trail.

All along, since first being detained in New Jersey following her return from Sierra Leone, the nurse has argued that she should not face any quarantine procedures, because she is showing no signs of Ebola.

For her, this is not simply a case of upholding her civil rights - the concern is that American medical workers will be deterred from travelling to the affected countries if they receive the same kind of treatment from the authorities on their return.

Put another way, she is thinking globally, while the Maine authorities are thinking locally.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Kaci Hickox has fought New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (left, seen earlier in October) and Mr LePage (right) over her quarantine

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