The health care worker quarantined at a New Jersey hospital for several days last year because she had contact with Ebola patients in West Africa has filed a federal lawsuit against Gov. Chris Christie and several New Jersey Department of Health officials, including the former commissioner, alleging the forced confinement violated her civil rights.
Kaci Hickox, a nurse who had been working with Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone, which at one point was a hotspot of the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak, was detained at Newark Liberty International Airport upon arriving there Oct. 24, 2014 and then later held at University Hospital.
She spent the weekend in a quarantine tent in an "unheated parking garage" despite having no symptoms other than a slightly elevated temperature she blamed on being "flushed and upset" by her treatment at the airport and had threatened to sue at the time if she wasn't released.
The lawsuit filed Thursday in Newark federal court alleges Christie, former New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Mary O'Dowd and other health officials violated Hickox's rights by depriving her of due process and unlawfully seizing, detaining and quarantining her while relying on fear rather than science to justify her confinement.
It seeks compensatory and punitive damages in the amount of at least $250,000 in addition to covering court costs and attorney fees.
“I never had Ebola. I never had symptoms of Ebola. I tested negative for Ebola the first night I stayed in New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s private prison,” Hickox, 34, said in a statement. “My liberty, my interests and consequently my civil rights were ignored because some ambitious governors saw an opportunity to use an age-old political tactic: fear.”
Hickox was the first person quarantined in the Garden State under a mandate Christie had issued the week before. The governor defended the quarantine, saying the move was to protect people in New Jersey. Gov. Cuomo in New York, where one doctor was successfully treated for the Ebola virus at Bellevue Hospital, had issued a similar quarantine order, which mandated a 21-day isolation and observation period for health care workers who treated patients in West Africa.
Both governors were sharply criticized for ordering the quarantines, which stepped beyond Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines calling for asymptomatic people returning from Ebola-stricken countries only to avoid public transportation and large gatherings.
Christie's office said it would not comment on the lawsuit because it is a pending legal matter, but pointed to comments the governor made in the past defending the quarantine. In one previous interview, he said his heart went out to Hickox but his "first and foremost obligation is to protect the public health and safety of the people of New Jersey."
The New Jersey Department of Health said it does not comment on pending litigation.
"The decision to quarantine anyone must be made based on science, not fear and politics," Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey, which joins Hickox in filing the lawsuit, said in a statement. "In holding Kaci Hickox, the governor and the former head of the Department of Health not only violated her basic constitutional rights, but they did so without any scientific foundation. Now, a year later, we are proud to help Kaci vindicate those rights."
Hickox slammed officials over the treatment she received, writing in a first-person account in the Dallas Morning News upon her release from the hospital that she encountered fear and disorganization when she arrived at the airport. She wrote that she was stopped and questioned over several hours and was left without food for an extended period.
No one would explain what was going on or what would happen to her, she said in the piece, which was written with the help of a Dallas Morning News staff writer.
At the time of her confinement, Doctors Without Borders had said in a statement that it was "very concerned about the conditions and uncertainty (Hickox) is facing."
"While measures to protect public health are of paramount importance, they must be balanced against the rights of health workers returning from fighting the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to fair and reasonable treatment and the full disclosure of information to them, along with information about intended courses of action from local and state health authorities," the organization said.