Quarantined health worker in Newark planning legal action over "inhumane treatment"

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Anthony Johnson has the latest details from Newark. (WABC)

A healthy nurse who is stuck in isolation at University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey is planning legal action over what she calls "inhumane treatment".

Kaci Hickox, who treated Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, is the first test case of quarantine policies now in effect in three states over heightened fears the deadly virus could be spread by health care workers returning to the United States.

Hickox reached out to Attorney Norman Seigel to fight for her release. She is not allowed to leave and is under police watch. She calls her quarantine an "over reach" by politicians, who should be relying on the medical experts to determine who is really sick. She is especially upset with Governor Chris Christie for her treatment.

In a phone interview with CNN Sunday, Hickox, who has tested negative for Ebola, said she's being held in a "tent structure" outside of the University Hospital in Newark.

"With a port-a-potty like structure and no shower and no connection to the outside world except my iPhone," she says. "I feel physically strong "

She says no one has indicated to her how long she will stay under quarantine. "Even to this day no one has told me how long it will last. If I will be retested," she said.

She said the "knee-jerk reaction by politicians" was not well planned out, "and to quarantine someone without a better plan in place, without more forethought, is just preposterous. This is an extreme that is really unacceptable and I feel like my basic human rights have been violated," Hickox said.

She published her own account of the chaos she met when she landed back in the U.S. in the Dallas Morning News and criticized the way her case was handled.

Hickox wrote, "I am scared about how health care workers will be treated at airports when they declare 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."

She says the process took hours after she was detained and questioned at Newark Airport and then was taken to University Hospital.

She said health care workers arriving back in the U.S. are made to feel like prisoners and criminals.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he sympathizes with Hickox, but says he has to do what he can to keep the public safe. "I mean the fact of the matter is that I don't believe that when you're dealing with something as serious as this that we can count on a voluntary system," Christie said in an interview with Fox Sunday. "This is government's job. If anything else, the government's job is to protect the safety and health of our citizens. And so, we've taken this action and I absolutely have no second thoughts about it. "

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that as a physician and scientist, he would have recommended against a quarantine.

"The best way to protect us is to stop the epidemic in Africa, and we need those health care workers so we do not want to put them in a position where it makes it very, very uncomfortable for them to even volunteer to go." he said.

He said active and direct monitoring can accomplish the same thing as a quarantine because people infected with Ebola do not become contagious until they start showing symptoms. Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.

The sketchy details of how such quarantines will be handled also drew sharp criticism from humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders while infectious disease experts said many of the logistics about enforcement are likely still up in the air.

Hickox, a Doctors Without Borders nurse, remained isolated at a hospital after she returned to the U.S. and the governors of New York, New Jersey and Illinois announced mandatory 21-day quarantines for arriving travelers who had contact with Ebola patients in West Africa.

Health officials said Hickox was transported to a hospital after running a fever, but the nurse told the Dallas Morning News she was merely flushed because she was upset by a quarantine process she described as treating her like a criminal.

"This is not a situation I would wish on anyone, and I am scared for those who will follow me," Hickox wrote in an essay for the newspaper.

Health officials said preliminary tests for Ebola came back negative for Hickox but Newark University Hospital would not say if she would be released for the balance of the quarantine period or remain in the hospital.

In the very early stages of Ebola, patients may still test negative because the virus has not yet reached detectable levels in the blood. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it may take up to three days after the onset of symptoms for the virus to reach detectable levels in some patients, prompting repeat testing in some cases.

But Doctors Without Borders executive director Sophie Delaunay complained Saturday about the "notable lack of clarity" from state officials about the quarantine policies, and an American Civil Liberties Union official in New Jersey said the state must provide more information on how it determined that mandatory quarantines were necessary.

"Coercive measures like mandatory quarantine of people exhibiting no symptoms of Ebola and when not medically necessary raise serious constitutional concerns about the state abusing its powers," said Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey.

Doctors Without Borders 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.

"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," Delaunay said in a statement.

Indeed, health officials in all three states with quarantine policies did not return messages Saturday from The Associated Press seeking details about enforcement.

Christie, campaigning Saturday in Iowa for a fellow Republican, said he sympathizes for Hickox but said he has to do what he can to ensure public health safety.

"My heart goes out to her," the governor said, while also noting that state and local health officials would make sure quarantine rules are enforced. He said the New Jersey State Police will not be involved.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, a Columbia University professor and director of the New York-based National Center for Disaster Preparedness, said 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 who should be under home quarantine and how to monitor them. That could involve case managers who keep an eye on home-bound people, Redlener said.

Cuomo and Christie on Friday imposed a mandatory quarantine of 21 days - the incubation period of the deadly virus - on travelers who have had contact with Ebola patients in the countries ravaged by the virus - Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. A similar measure was announced in Illinois, where officials say such travelers could be quarantined at home.

The quarantine measures were announced after a New York physician, Craig Spencer, working for Doctors Without Borders returned from Guinea was admitted to Manhattan's Bellevue Hospital Center earlier this week to be treated for Ebola.

His fiancee was released from Bellevue on Saturday night but will remain quarantined in the couple's Harlem apartment. She and two of Spencer's friends would remain quarantined until Nov. 14, officials said. They currently do not have any Ebola symptoms.

Hospital officials said in a statement Saturday that Spencer was awake and communicating and "experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms."

De Blasio was not consulted by Cuomo about the new airport regulations, and the governor's warning Friday that "hundreds and hundreds of people" could be infected by simply riding a bus with an Ebola patient ran contrary to the mayor's attempts to tamp down public fear.

"We understand in a fast-moving situation, sometimes there will be moments where the communication is not everything we want it to be," de Blasio said Saturday after he had lunch at a Manhattan meatball restaurant visited by Spencer earlier in the week.

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