LePage Administration's Ebola Protocols Meet Opposition from Medical Groups
State and national medical organizations have joined civil rights groups and others in opposing the LePage administration's protocols for health workers returning from West Africa, such as Kaci Hickox. Today the American Nurses Association and the Maine Medical Association criticized the state's requested 21-day quarantine for Hickox as unnecessary, unscientifically based and apt to create a climate of more fear. The ACLU of Maine is also prepared to defend Hickox's civil rights.
In an op-ed scheduled for publication in the Portland Press Herald on Friday, former state epidemiologists, state health officers and other physicians in Maine asked political leaders and state health officials to guided by science and not emotion. "An epidemic of fear can be as deadly as an epidemic with a virus," they wrote. "The science and experience of many indicates that Ebola is not contagious before symptoms occur."
"The stakes get higher every hour," says Gordon Smith, the executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association, whose president and other members signed onto the open letter. "When all the national news media is sitting in Fort Kent reporting minute-by-minute on the activities of Kaci, that then sends a message to the public."
And that message, says Smith, is that Hickox's presence is a big deal and there must be some kind of threat to themselves and their families. As evidence of that, Smith says he's been getting calls from Fort Kent-area physicians who are concerned that their patients are being misinformed and are putting off necessary health treatment as a result.
"For instance, there have been cases canceled. Patients have called the Northern Maine Medical Center and canceled their cases because of their fear that somehow having Kaci in town will somehow imperil their hospital," Smith says.
Smith says it's important for health professionals to quell such fears. In their op-ed, Maine physicians point out that bodily fluids such as blood and vomit are most infectious at the very end stages of Ebola. They say that is why the only two people to have contracted the virus in the United States are two nurses who cared for a patient in Texas at the very end of his life. And they say that everyone should have assurances with the facts.
"I am a little bit concerned that we haven't heard more from Dr. Pinette, you know, who is our state health officer at present," says Dr. Lani Graham. Graham was the state's health officer from 1990 to 1996 and is one of those who signed the letter. Reached by cell phone, Graham says quarantining of all health care workers without symptoms upon their return from caring for Ebola patients may be well-intended, but is not supported by science or experience.
But that's what Dr. Shiela Pinette and other state officials are proposing. It's a move more restrictive than called for by the federal Centers for Disease Control guidance that recommends monitoring of returning health workers such as Hickox. And Alison Beyea of the ACLU of Maine says as long as Hickox is self monitoring and remains asymptomatic, she doesn't pose a risk to the public and there's no medical or legal basis to isolate her.
"The state is claiming that there's a public health risk and under state law they would have to show a clear and imminent threat. and when someone is not infectious the legal authority for making that claim is dubious," Beyea says.
Beyea says the ACLU will be monitoring Hickox's situation carefully, and if intervention is necessary to protect her civil rights, Beyea says the group will intervene.