The Cable

Ebola Response Becomes States’ Rights vs. Civil Liberties

The fight over how to respond to Ebola cases on American soil became a battle between states’ right and civil liberties when a state judge ruled that the rights of a medical worker exposed to the disease trumped Maine’s order to quarantine her. Thursday night Maine District Court Chief Judge Charles LaVerdiere ordered Kaci Hickox, ...

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The fight over how to respond to Ebola cases on American soil became a battle between states’ right and civil liberties when a state judge ruled that the rights of a medical worker exposed to the disease trumped Maine’s order to quarantine her.

Thursday night Maine District Court Chief Judge Charles LaVerdiere ordered Kaci Hickox, a nurse who treated Ebola patients in West Africa, to stay at least three feet away from people and to avoid public transportation and crowds. But upon further review of the case, he ruled Friday afternoon that Maine had no authority to restrict Hickox, who was openly defying quarantine and had no symptoms.

However, LaVerdiere ordered Hickox to allow "direct active monitoring" of her health. Each day, public-health officials will take her temperature and check her for Ebola symptoms.

The compromise rulings could end Hickox’s saga. Last weekend, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie placed her under quarantine near the Newark airport — one of five in the United States that accepts incoming passengers from West Africa, the source of the outbreak. She eventually left quarantine and began a public spat with Christie, who stood by his decision.

One of the reasons that the Ebola response has garnered so much attention is political. Ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections, Republicans are accusing Democrats — and the White House — of a disjointed response to the virus’s appearance on U.S. soil.

But there are real public-health concerns as well. A person can become infected with Ebola up to 21 days after exposure. Craig Spencer, a New York City doctor who was asymptomatic for days upon his return from West Africa, eventually came down with the disease, setting off a panicked response in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

"We know that people who are taking care of these patients are heroic. But the people who are treating people with Ebola are at risk," said Eden Wells, an infectious disease expert at the University of Michigan. "I expected we’re going to see more cases like Dr. Spencer."

Perhaps this is why Judge LaVerdiere admonished Hickox for so openly flaunting quarantine.

"Respondent’s actions at this point, as a health-care professional, need to demonstrate her full understanding of human nature and the real fear that exists," LaVerdiere wrote in his ruling. "She should guide herself accordingly."

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola