A District Court judge in Maine has overturned a lower court ruling that restricted Kaci Hickox’s movements, which means that the formerly-quarantined nurse is now free to go about her business. The reason? The science on ebola transmission is apparently settled:
Judge Charles C. LaVerdiere ruled Hickox must continue daily monitoring and cooperate with health officials if she chooses to travel. The judge said there’s no need to restrict her movements because she’s not showing symptoms of Ebola.
In his ruling, the judge thanked Hickox for her service in Africa and wrote that “people are acting out of fear and that this fear is not entirely rational.”
Maine Gov. Paul LePage disagreed with the judge’s decision, but said the state will follow the law…
The judge…acknowledged the gravity of restricting someone’s constitutional rights without solid science to back it up.
“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,” he wrote. “The court is fully aware that people are acting out of fear and that this fear is not entirely rational.”
It may not be absolutely true that those without symptoms can’t transmit the disease, because we don’t have the numbers to back that up,” said Beutler, “It could be people develop significant viremia [where viruses enter the bloodstream and gain access to the rest of the body], and become able to transmit the disease before they have a fever, even. People may have said that without symptoms you can’t transmit Ebola. I’m not sure about that being 100 percent true. There’s a lot of variation with viruses.”
On the subject of possible further court action by the state:
The current ruling supersedes the earlier order and will be in effect until a full hearing on the issue. The court papers set no specific date for a full hearing, but they noted that such a proceeding must be held “no less than three days and not more than 10 days” from Thursday.
This is the way the argument is going to go: for the Hickox defenders, it will be “you stupid anti-science morons, we are the scientists who know best”—despite the terrible track record public health authorities have so far with regards to controlling Ebola in Africa, preventing the disease from reaching the US, and then in preventing it from being transmitted to health care workers in the US.
That said, the actual chances of Kaci Hickox having ebola are extremely slim; so I would bet a fairly large amount of money that she and/or some of her supporters will say on November 10 or even before, “See, dummyheads, she’s fine! Therefore a quarantine would have been wrong.”
This of course is an unscientific argument. A quarantine is a game of numbers. It restricts an individual, but it does not require that every restricted individual develop the disease in order to justify the imposition of the quarantine. It doesn’t even require that most of them develop the disease, or even that any of them do so. It merely requires that it is possible they might have developed it, and that the risks of spreading that disease to the public are great enough to justify a very time-limited restriction on their physical movement and freedom of association.
Returning health practitioners from ebola-affected countries all have a small but nonetheless actual possibility of infection. Because we are not certain at exactly what point a person becomes contagious, and since even health professionals are not necessarily reliable at reporting and restricting their own movements the minute they display symptoms, it could certainly be argued (scientifically and rationally) that a 21-day quarantine (or, as in this case, restriction from being around the public) could be justified.
[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]DONATE
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