Judge rejects isolation for US nurse who treated Ebola victims, says fears not entirely rational

Kaci Hickox stands with her boyfriend Theodore Michael Wilbur as she gives a statement to the media in front of her home in Fort Kent, Maine on Oct 31, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Kaci Hickox stands with her boyfriend Theodore Michael Wilbur as she gives a statement to the media in front of her home in Fort Kent, Maine on Oct 31, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

FORT KENT, Maine (Reuters) - A Maine judge ruled on Friday that a United States nurse who treated victims of Ebola in West Africa does not need to be confined to her home, declaring Ebola fears in the United States "not entirely rational".

Nurse Kaci Hickox's challenge of Maine's 21-day isolation regime became a key battle in the dispute between some US states and the federal government. A handful of states have imposed mandatory quarantines on health workers returning from three Ebola-ravaged West African countries while the federal government is wary of discouraging potential medical volunteers.

While she may travel freely in public, the judge decided that Ms Hickox must continue direct monitoring of her health, coordinate travel plans with health officials and report any symptoms.

"I'm happy with the decision the judge made today," Ms Hickox told reporters via a live video feed from her house in Maine to her lawyer's New York City office. "I think we are on the right track. I think now we're discussing as a nation and individual communities about this disease."

Public concern about the spread of the virus is high in both the United States and Canada. Canada became the second developed nation after Australia to bar entry for citizens from the three West African nations where Ebola is widespread.

Some US politicians have called for a similar travel ban, making Ebola as much of a political issue as a public health question.

The most deadly outbreak of the disease on record has killed nearly 5,000 people, all but a handful of them in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

Only one person in the United States is currently being treated for Ebola, New York doctor Craig Spencer, who cared for patients in West Africa.

Maine Governor Paul LePage, a Republican in a tough re-election battle that culminates in Tuesday's elections, said he was disappointed that restrictions confining the nurse to her home were lifted. His office did not respond to questions about whether the governor would appeal the ruling.

The issue is not yet legally closed.

A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday that will give lawyers for the state another opportunity to plead their case for more restrictions on Ms Hickox before Maine District Court chief judge Charles LaVerdiere.

In Friday's order, Judge LaVerdiere said: "The court is fully aware of the misconceptions, misinformation, bad science and bad information being spread from shore to shore in our country with respect to Ebola.

"The court is fully aware that people are acting out of fear and that this fear is not entirely rational. However, whether that fear is rational or not, it is present and it is real," the judge added, saying Ms Hickox is "not infectious".

On Thursday, the 33-year-old nurse defied the state's quarantine order and went on a bike ride with her boyfriend. Following the ruling, state troopers who had been stationed outside Ms Hickox's home departed.

Speaking to reporters alongside boyfriend Ted Wilbur outside her two-story clapboard house in the small town of Fort Kent along the Canadian border, Ms Hickox said she would comply.

"It's just a good day," Ms Hickox said. "I am taking things minute by minute. Tonight, I am going to try to convince Ted to make me my favorite Japanese meal. And I think we're going to watch scary movies since it's Halloween."

Ms Hickox tested negative for Ebola after returning from working for Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone. She also objected when the state of New Jersey put her into isolation when she arrived at Newark airport.

She said he hoped to be able to return for more work in West Africa. "I love working overseas. It's been a large part of my life since 2006," Ms Hickox said.

"I know that Ebola is a scary disease. I have seen it face-to-face and I know that we are nowhere near winning this battle," she added.

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.

An Oregon resident was hospitalised on Friday for a possible Ebola infection after traveling to West Africa, according to state health officials. The woman registered a high temperature and is in isolation and not a danger to the public, Oregon Health Authority said.

The woman had not come into known contact with Ebola patients while in Africa, and had not been quarantined after arriving in Portland because there was no medical need, Dr Paul Lewis, a public health officer in the Portland area, told a news conference.

Public health experts, the United Nations, federal officials and even President Barack Obama have expressed concern that state quarantines for returning doctors and nurses could discourage potential medical volunteers from fighting the outbreak at its source in West Africa.

In New York on Friday, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power defended federal guidelines for monitoring healthcare workers returning from the three Ebola-stricken countries.

Ms Power spoke at a Reuters Newsmaker event hours after returning from a four-day trip to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. She said she believed current federal guidelines for returning health-care workers balanced "the need to respond to the fears that this has generated" in the United States with the known science on the disease.

The US Department of Defence trod that line carefully on Friday. According to the Pentagon, civilian US defence employees returning from Ebola relief work in West Africa must undergo monitoring to ensure they are free of disease but can choose between following civil health guidelines or the stricter military regimen, which requires troops to be isolated for 21 days after returning to their home station.

Another potential flashpoint was resolved when Louisiana reached an agreement on Friday to prevent Veolia Environmental Services, which is in possession of the incinerated personal items of Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan and is holding them in Port Arthur, Texas, from sending them to a Louisiana landfill.

Louisiana Attorney-General Buddy Caldwell had sued and obtained a temporary restraining order to block the transfer of the material collected from Duncan and the Dallas apartment where he was staying to a hazardous waste landfill in Louisiana.