The arrival back in Maine of Kaci Hickox – a Fort Kent nurse who spent a month in West Africa overseeing the care of Ebola patients – was a perfect teachable moment. Officials in Maine had the chance to present solid, science-based information about the disease: how it spreads, how it shows up in someone who’s been infected and how low the infection risk is for the general public.

But the opportunity for rational dialogue has been missed. In its place Tuesday were swirling rumors; conflicting statements from the state and Hickox’s attorney about whether Hickox is under state quarantine, and an announcement by Maine’s health and human services commissioner that the state would seek a court order if Hickox did not voluntarily seclude herself.

Officials at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, where Hickox’s boyfriend, Ted Wilbur, is a nursing student, had also wanted him to stay away from university grounds, though federal guidelines warrant the quarantine of neither Hickox nor Wilbur. “We don’t want hysteria on the campus,” a university dean said Monday night. Too late – it’s everywhere now.

Ebola isn’t spread easily. It isn’t transmitted by water, by food or by air, like respiratory disorders such as chickenpox. Four family members of Thomas Eric Duncan, the only person who has died of Ebola in the U.S., emerged uninfected from quarantine, and they’d spent several days in isolation in the apartment where they had cared for him before hazmat crews removed his contaminated towels and bedding.

Transmission requires direct contact, which takes place when a patient’s bodily fluids – like blood, saliva or vomit – reach a break in a healthy person’s skin or mucous membranes found in the eyes, mouth and nose.

The federal Centers for Disease Control calls for the daily monitoring of health care workers like Hickox. But quarantine conditions, according to the CDC, aren’t justified solely because someone has cared for Ebola patients; the only caregivers who should be isolated, the CDC says, are those who have had direct contact, such as touching patients’ bodily fluids while not wearing protective gear.


State policies, though, have been more stringent than federal guidelines. Hickox, who came back to the U.S. on a flight into Newark, New Jersey, was held against her will there for 24 hours. Back in Maine, the LePage administration expects her to abide by a three-week quarantine; if she doesn’t, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said Tuesday, the state would take legal action to force Hickox into isolation.

University officials had considered barring Hickox’s boyfriend from campus. The couple’s decision to delay their return to Fort Kent rendered that scenario moot – but it shouldn’t ever have been considered to begin with. A healthy person can’t get Ebola through direct contact with someone who – like Hickox – has had no Ebola symptoms. (She has also tested negative for the virus.)

Even Ted Wilbur’s fellow nursing students, who should be well-informed about disease transmission, have said they wouldn’t attend class with him.

Here’s something to contemplate as all this unfolds: Anywhere from 3,000 to 50,000 people in the U.S. die each year of influenza. Yet during the most recent flu season, fewer than half of all Americans were vaccinated against it. If a tenth of the concern devoted to worrying about Ebola could be directed instead toward protecting ourselves from this much greater threat, we’d all be more healthy this winter – and have far greater peace of mind to boot.

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