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In Fort Kent, Backlash Mounts Over Nurse's Return

Patty Wight

FORT KENT, Maine — When nurse Kaci Hickox was released early from a mandatory quarantine in New Jersey this week, it was expected she would return to her home here. Hickox had been treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. Her plans have now sparked a backlash from some residents in Fort Kent and from students at the local university, where her boyfriend is a nursing student. But as of Tuesday, Hickox and her boyfriend remained at an undisclosed location in Maine.

Tuesday was a long day for Fort Kent Police Chief Tom Pelletier. He spent a lot of it on the phone, talking to residents worried about Hickox's expected arrival.

"I've had everything from asking the police department to post a police officer at their driveway so if she arrives here — so that she would stay in isolation for 21 days," he says.

Pelletier says while some residents are worried about their own safety, he's more worried about Hickox. Social media websites targeting the nurse and her boyfriend have cropped up, telling them not to come to Maine.

"It's kinda sad," he says. "I'm disappointed and embarrassed, from a town that has a reputation of being so giving, that some of those threats that have come out of this are quite mean and it's not representative of where we're from and what we do here."

Amid the fear is also confusion. It erupted at the University of Maine Fort Kent Monday night, where Hickox's boyfriend, Ted Wilbur, is a nursing student. Junior Kayla Michaud says she was in class when students received an email notifying them that Hickox planned to stay with Wilbur when she returned.

Credit Patty Wight / MPBN
Faith Morneault (from left), Misty Probst and Kayla Michaud.

"And you just saw everyone on their phones checking out their email," she says. "The teacher had to stop class because no one was paying attention. It was like a riot in class. Everyone was in a slight panic because we didn't know what was going on."

Senior Misty Probst says UMFK is a small university. There are only about 800 students on campus. Those close quarters are what she says make her uneasy about Hickox and Wilbur returning to Fort Kent.

"I was very very relieved when I found out they weren't coming up here," Probst says. "Ebola is so deadly, we need to think about the greater good of everyone, and not just those two people."

Associate Dean of of Student Life and Development Ray Phinney says the concern from students is understandable.

"We're one of the first college campuses to be affected by a potential outbreak," he says.

He says a lot of students don't understand that Ebola is not contagious until a person develops symptoms such as a fever, headaches, diarrhea and vomiting. And then it can only be spread through direct contact with bodily fluids. In terms of Wilbur, Phinney says the school planned to follow CDC guidelines, which would not have prohibited him from campus if he was symptom-free. But Wilbur approached the school to make arrangements to do his coursework online for a few weeks.

"He has been concerned and asked questions about what it's like in Fort Kent," Phinney says. "He hasn't been in town during this process. And we've been very honest with him about things we've seen and heard and the number of news media in the area."

Phinney says students seem to be more comfortable with the situation as they learn more. Off campus, there's also an appreciation for what Kaci Hickox is facing. As Janice Michaud and her son Jacob finish a family dinner at Rock's Diner Tuesday night, they say Hickox has a right to come home.

"I hope she realizes there are a lot of people here supporting her," Janice says, "those who choose to think rationally and realize that she knows how to handle this, and so do a lot of other people."

"A lot of people were bitter that she was wanting to come back here," Jacob says. "But they didn't think about what she did in Africa to help all those people. Not many people would do that. She deserves to come home and be comfortable too."

It's unclear when Hickox may return to Fort Kent.