FORT KENT, Maine (AP) — Health officials said Tuesday they're prepared to legally enforce the state's "voluntary" quarantine on health care workers who've treated Ebola patients.
Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew declined during a news conference to comment specifically on the case of nurse Kaci Hickox, who was confined against her will at a New Jersey hospital before traveling home to Maine. But Mayhew said her department and the attorney general's office were prepared to take legal steps to enforce a quarantine if someone declines to cooperate.
"We do not want to have to legally enforce in-home quarantine," she said. "We're confident that selfless health workers who were brave enough to care for Ebola patients in a foreign country will be willing to take reasonable steps to protect residents of their own country. However we are willing to pursue legal authority if necessary to ensure risk is minimized for Mainers."
Hickox's lawyer insisted Tuesday that she was not under quarantine and said she was seeking time to decompress at an undisclosed location in Maine.
Hickox, who volunteered in Africa with Doctors Without Borders, was the first person forced into New Jersey's mandatory quarantine for people arriving at Newark Liberty International Airport from three West African countries.
Hickox, who spent the weekend in a quarantine tent, said she never had Ebola symptoms and tested negative in a preliminary evaluation, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo were sharply criticized for ordering mandatory quarantines.
In Maine, a quarantine comes into play only when people have had contact with Ebola patients; others who've been to the three countries will be monitored, officials said.
On Monday, Hickox traveled from New Jersey to Maine, where her boyfriend is a senior nursing student at the University of Maine at Fort Kent. Her boyfriend opted to leave Fort Kent to spend time with her during the quarantine period, officials said Tuesday.
If Hickox were to show Ebola symptoms, then her boyfriend and any others who had contact with her also would be subject to quarantine, Mayhew said.
The news of Hickox's return to Maine swept across the town of Fort Kent and the university campus, which has 1,400 students.
Faith Morneault, a 19-year-old behavioral science student, said news that Hickox may be headed to Fort Kent had caused "a lot of panic" among students. But she said she understands her desire to go home.
"You can't freak out in this situation. You have to understand it," she said.
Another student, 20-year-old behavioral science major Kayla Michaud, said students also are worried because of the potential presence of Hickox's boyfriend in the school community.
"If she's in quarantine, is he going to be quarantined, because we don't all want to be contaminated with the Ebola virus," she said.
Not everyone was alarmed, however.
Paul Berube, who works at a local credit union, said he thinks some residents are "overreacting."
"Listen, we don't live in a Third World country. We have some of the best medical hospitals here. We're prepared for it. We can't stop living. We need to live one day at a time and just be happy," said Berube, 58.
Associated Press writer David Sharp in Portland contributed to this report.