Kaci Hickox traveled halfway around the world to help stem the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, and for her trouble she was forced to live for two days in a tent staked in a parking lot outside a New Jersey hospital.

The story of the nurse from Fort Kent should come as little comfort to those worried about the spread of the virus, or any other contagious disease, here in the United States, and it is yet another example of irrational fear, and political pandering, getting in the way of an actual solution.

Hickox, 33, landed Friday in Newark, N.J., after a month in Sierra Leone, where she was overseeing a group of health care workers with the charity group Doctors Without Borders.

She arrived a day after a doctor in New York City tested positive for Ebola upon returning from Guinea. That doctor had moved freely around the city before developing symptoms, causing concern among residents and prompting Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Chris Christie of New Jersey to issue mandatory quarantine orders for medical workers returning from West Africa.

Into that swirl fell Hickox, who was detained for hours, then brought with police escort to University Hospital in Newark. Ebola is only contagious when an infected person develops symptoms, typically beginning with a high fever. But despite showing no symptoms and testing negative for Ebola, Hickox spent two days inside a hastily erected, unheated and plastic-floored tent, without access to running water.

On Monday, Hickox was on her way home to Aroostook County, where she will be monitored by health officials until she has been symptom-free for 21 days, the maximum incubation period for Ebola.


The efficacy of a mandatory quarantine is questionable, particularly when it is triggered by one symptomatic person in a region of 20 million. And applying that quarantine to medical workers, who are fighting the virus at its source where it is killing thousands in an ongoing crisis, could have a chilling effect on the humanitarian work necessary to stop Ebola from becoming an actual threat in the United States.

In fact, the only time the virus has spread thus far on U.S. soil, from patient Thomas Eric Duncan to two nurses at a Dallas hospital, it was because of unsafe practices at the hospital, not because of an infected person out in the public.

And if anyone is likely to institute a self-quarantine at home, as Hickox was planning, or to report to a hospital as soon as symptoms arise, it is the doctors and nurses who have seen the struggle against Ebola firsthand.

It is reasonable to think, after going to Africa and back to help the sick, that they can properly weigh the incredibly low risks of infection once home.

But reason has been lost, and replaced with the impulse to detain everyone who has traveled to West Africa.

It’s the same impulse that led parents in Strong, Maine, to ask for a teacher who had been to Dallas during the Ebola scare there to be put on mandatory paid leave, and a New Jersey school to tell students from Rwanda, more than 2,000 miles from the nearest Ebola-stricken country, to stay home.

It’s the same impulse that put Kaci Hickox in a tent thrown up as some sort of makeshift, parking-lot hospital ward.

If this is the reaction when four people out of more than 317 million are infected, what will happen during a real crisis?

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