The Complexities of Quarantine

Kaci Hickox Quarantine

Members of the media wait outside Kaci Hickox’s house in Fort Kent, Maine on October 30, 2014. Photograph by Spencer Platt, Getty Images

Nurse Kaci Hickox volunteered to treat Ebola patients in Sierra Leone with Médecins Sans Frontières in September 2014. When she returned to the United States in October, she was quarantined in New Jersey for three days before returning home to Maine under the terms of a negotiated release. The story received extensive media coverage.

On October 31, a Maine judge lifted Hickox’s quarantine but ordered her to actively monitor her symptoms for 21 days and to notify health authorities should symptoms appear. In the ruling, the judge praised Hickox and said, “We owe her and all professionals who give of themselves in this way a debt of gratitude.” 

A year later, in October 2015, Hickox filed suit in federal court against Governor Chris Christie and New Jersey health officials, claiming that the quarantine violated her civil rights. Her complaint asserted that New Jersey officials lacked the authority to quarantine her because she did not pose a significant risk of transmission. The lawsuit raised important questions about disease-transmission risk, the inability of science to rule out certain theoretical risks, and the state’s power to quarantine. It also demonstrated that population health depends on respecting individual liberty and using the best available epidemiological data to set public health policy.