A nurse who had contact with Ebola patients in west Africa and was quarantined at a New Jersey hospital when she returned sued governor Chris Christie and state health officials on Thursday, saying they illegally held her against her will.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and a New York firm filed the federal civil rights lawsuit in Newark for Kaci Hickox. Besides Christie, the lawsuit names as defendants former state health commissioner Mary O’Dowd and other health department employees.
The lawsuit seeks at least $250,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, and Hickox’s lawyers say they hope the case will change a quarantine policy they allege was driven by politics, not by public health concerns.
Hickox, 34, was working with Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone during last year’s Ebola outbreak, which killed thousands of people. When she returned via Newark Liberty International Airport she was stopped, questioned and sent to stay in a tent outside a Newark hospital despite having no symptoms of the disease, which is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids of an infected person who shows symptoms.
“I felt like I was being manipulated. I was literally in the dark,” Hickox, who lives in Oregon, said at a New York news conference via Skype. “It was so hard. I felt completely alone and completely vulnerable, and I was scared.”
She said Christie’s decision to quarantine her was made out of fear and was politically motivated, although she didn’t elaborate. Christie, a Republican, was considering a run for president and has since entered the race.
Christie’s office is not commenting on the pending legal matter, a spokesperson said.
Christie said last year he was doing his duty to keep people safe. When asked then about a possible lawsuit, he said he has been sued lots of times: “Get in line,” he said. “I’m happy to take it on.”
O’Dowd said she had not received the lawsuit and referred questions to the health department, which said it does not comment on pending litigation.
Hickox was the first person forced into New Jersey’s mandatory quarantine for healthcare workers who came into contact with Ebola patients after Christie and Democratic New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced a stronger quarantine policy than federal standards. The White House and medical groups criticised their plan.
Hickox, a Maine resident at the time, said she was questioned in Newark by numerous people including a man who spoke to her “aggressively as if she were a criminal and was wearing a weapon belt”.
While she didn’t have a fever when her temperature was first taken, she said a medical staffer using a temporal scanner told her she did have a fever. She said that was due to her being flushed from frustration but it led to her being taken to the hospital, escorted by police cars with lights flashing and sirens blaring.
Her lawsuit lays out a series of temperature readings that were elevated when checked with a temporal thermometer but normal when taken orally. A statement from O’Dowd that night said Hickox was being quarantined because she had developed a fever. The next day, Christie described her as “obviously ill”. She said her mother called her, afraid that she might be sick, because of Christie’s comment.
Hickox twice tested negative for Ebola but was kept quarantined for more than two days. She then was driven to Maine, where she decided against following the state’s voluntary quarantine. A judge later gave her the nod to go wherever she pleased as long as she continued daily health monitoring.