A UT Arlington graduate being held in quarantine after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone is sharply critical of the way she was received after returning to the U.S. and hopes that others in her profession do not share her experience.
Kaci Hickox, a nurse with Doctors Without Borders who graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington in 2002, wrote in a first-person account in The Dallas Morning News that she was questioned over the course of several hours after arriving Friday at Newark Liberty Airport.
She said no one would explain what was going on or what would happen to her. Finally she was taken under heavy police escort to University Hospital in Newark, N.J., where she remained in quarantine Saturday night.
“This is not a situation I would wish on anyone, and I am scared for those who will follow me,” Hickox wrote. “I am scared about how healthcare workers will be treated at airports when they declare that they have been fighting Ebola in West Africa. I am scared that, like me, they will arrive and see a frenzy of disorganization, fear and, most frightening, quarantine.”
Hickox, 33, was quarantined under a policy announced Friday by the governors of New York and New Jersey that affects all people entering the country through Newark and Kennedy airports who had direct contact with Ebola patients in Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone, even if they show no symptoms.
On Friday, the day after a New York City doctor who had worked in Guinea tested positive for Ebola, the governors of both states described the quarantines as a necessary precaution. The doctor, Craig Spencer, 33, remained in isolation at Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan on Saturday, and three people with whom he had recently had contact, including his fiancee, have been quarantined.
On Saturday, in a sign of growing concern about the virus, Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois, the home of another major travel hub, O’Hare Airport in Chicago, instituted a similar quarantine program. Connecticut, which enacted a similar policy Oct. 7, has quarantined nine people, who have shown no symptoms.
Hickox has hired a lawyer to seek a court hearing to get her released from quarantine, CNN reported Sunday.
In a telephone interview on CNN earlier, Hickox criticized New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for declaring that she was “obviously ill” when she arrived at the New Jersey airport. She said that she had never seen Christie in person and that he was not qualified to make such an assesment anyway.
“I think we have to be very careful about letting politicians make medical and public health decisions,” she said.
Finally, she said, “I feel like my basic human rights have been violated.”
First test case
Hickox is the first test case of quarantine policies now in effect in states over heightened fears that the deadly virus could be spread by healthcare workers returning to the U.S.
She described having been held in isolation for about seven hours at Newark Liberty Airport, left alone for long stretches and given only a granola bar when she said she was hungry.
On Friday night, New Jersey health officials said Hickox had developed a fever after landing, but on Saturday, they said her blood had tested negative for Ebola. Additional tests will be conducted to confirm the finding.
Hickox disputed that she had had a fever and attributed the finding to human error. She wrote that at the airport, a forehead scanner showed her temperature to be 101, but that came after four hours during which she was not allowed to leave.
“My cheeks were flushed, I was upset at being held with no explanation,” she wrote. “The female officer looked smug. ‘You have a fever now,’ she said.”
At the hospital, she was taken to a tent outside the building. An oral thermometer showed her temperature to be 98, she wrote. A forehead scan taken around the same time read 101, she wrote, suggesting that it was not a reliable instrument to determine fever.
She wrote that the doctor felt her neck and rechecked the temperature. “ ‘There’s no way you have a fever,’ he said. ‘Your face is just flushed.’ ”
“I sat alone in the isolation tent and thought of many colleagues who will return home to America and face the same ordeal,” Hickox wrote. “Will they be made to feel like criminals and prisoners?”
Hickox’s complaints served as a broadside against the new quarantine policy, which goes further than recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The new policy has raised concerns among health experts and doctors that it will discourage people from going to West Africa to try to contain Ebola at its source.
The CDC calls for self-monitoring for travelers who have had contact with Ebola patients, but not isolation, because a patient is not believed to be contagious until symptoms appear. But CDC officials said states have the right to go beyond its recommendations.
Dr. Irwin Redlener, a Columbia University professor and director of the New York-based National Center for Disaster Preparedness, told The Associated Press that the logistics of such a policy are “a problem.”
“The challenge now is how you translate this quarantine plan to operational protocol,” said Redlener, who attended a meeting with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on which people should be under home quarantine and how to monitor them. That could involve case managers who keep an eye on homebound people, Redlener said.
White House officials met Saturday to discuss whether to revise nationwide policies on the return of healthcare workers from affected West African countries. An official said the administration may take further action, although it wants to avoid anything that would hinder the ability to fight Ebola in West Africa.
Asked about the nurse’s essay while visiting Iowa, Gov. Christie was quoted by The New York Times as saying, “My heart goes out to her because she’s someone who has been trying to help others and is obviously ill.
“I’m sorry if in any way she was inconvenienced, but inconvenience that could occur from having folks that are symptomatic and ill out amongst the public is a much, much greater concern of mine,” he said. “I hope she recovers quickly, and we’re going to do everything we can in New Jersey and in our public health system to make sure that she does.”
In a telephone interview Saturday night, Hickox’s father, Leon Hickox, told the Times that his daughter “is not ill in any way.”
‘Notable lack of clarity’
Doctors Without Borders Executive Director Sophie Delaunay complained Saturday about the “notable lack of clarity” from state officials on quarantine policies.
“We are attempting to clarify the details of the protocols with each state’s departments of health to gain a full understanding of their requirements and implications,” she said in a statement.
The aid organization said Hickox has not been issued an order of quarantine specifying how long she must be isolated and is being kept in an unheated tent. It urged the “fair and reasonable treatment” of health workers fighting the Ebola outbreak.
Hickox grew up in Texas and became a nurse with Doctors Without Borders after working with the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service, which seeks to improve disease identification and treatment, according to a 2012 article in UTArlington Magazine.
She lives in Fort Kent, Maine, and has worked in several African countries with Doctors Without Borders. She also graduated from Johns Hopkins University’s dual program for a Master of Public Health and Master of Science in Nursing.
Her mother, Karen Hickox, told the Times that her daughter called her on Saturday morning crying. “She felt like you would treat a dog better than she’s been treated,” she said.
Staff writer Mitch Mitchell contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press and The New York Times.