Why an Ebola quarantine is legal

Laura Ingle reports on Kaci Hickox


I admire Kaci Hickox’s devotion to helping others. As a nurse, she risked her life treating Ebola patients in West Africa. If only she had the same compassion for others here at home.

Hickox, who is threatening to violate a state imposed 21 day quarantine in Maine, claims her “basic human rights have been violated.” 

Not true. 

In America, our right to freedom is not absolute or boundless. It is conditional. There are limits. We are not free to kill or harm others with a weapon, for example. Even people who do not intend to kill or harm, are not free to be careless or reckless in wielding a gun. We live by a set of laws which protect our lives.


Sadly, Ebola has become the equivalent of a deadly weapon. It is not wielded intentionally, but by negligent or accidental contact. 

Thus, the same legal principles of protection apply. Hickox surely does not intend to infect anyone with a virus she may not even have. But that’s not the point. She has the potential to transmit the infectious disease, perhaps without even knowing it. And given Ebola’s deadly nature, government must err on the side of caution to guard the health and safety of its citizenry.

As a matter of fundamental law, state and federal governments have long had the power to quarantine individuals who may have been exposed to a deadly contagion or are suspected of having the disease. 

For more than a century, quarantines imposed under exigent circumstances have been employed for a variety of illnesses. A person does not have to be fully symptomatic to be quarantined. Courts have upheld this power consistently. And the less that is known or understood about a disease, the broader the exercise of that power. Ebola presents such a case.

Hickox insists there is no “scientific reason” for her to be quarantined in her home during the 21 day incubation period. Yet, the paucity of scientific understanding of Ebola and the plethora of conflicting opinions is precisely why she should be quarantined. 

Communicable diseases, especially at their outset, are often difficult to control because our knowledge of their transmission and evolution is not fully known. This is where common sense, by default, must be used.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes that infected people can only spread the virus when they are symptomatic, not during incubation. But common sense tells us there is a fine line between the two. 

Early symptoms can be overlooked or misinterpreted until it is too late. And since those symptoms mimic a variety of other illnesses, including the common cold, an infected person outside a quarantine could go for minutes, hours or even days without recognizing he or she is contagious. All the while, they are capable of spreading the disease to others with whom they come in contact.

Transmission itself is equivocal and subject to debate. The White House and CDC doctors assure us that Ebola is spread by direct contact with blood, mucus, saliva and other bodily fluids. They insist it is not “airborne.” But as I pointed out in my first column on the subject, this claim is misleading. When people cough or sneeze, they sometimes project microscopic droplets of saliva a distance of 7 to 12 feet into the air. While invisible to the eye, it can be inhaled by others and enter their respiratory tract or otherwise be ingested. So, dismissing indirect contact as a source of transmission is playing a game of semantics at the public’s expense.

Let’s say nurse Hickox violates her quarantine by leaving her home to go grocery shopping. She is asymptomatic when she departs, but becomes symptomatic and infectious inside the store. She may not fully recognize it. 

How do you feel as a shopper there, especially if she coughs or sneezes while you are standing next to her in the produce section? Feel like picking up that same cabbage she just put back? I doubt it.

Again, I admire Hickox’s dedication as a nurse. But her defiance is selfish and irresponsible. She, more than most, should understand that serious public health threats to an entire community must occasionally transcend or supersede the individual rights of one person or a few. 

After all, 21 days in the comfort of your own home is not an unreasonable intrusion, given the life-threatening circumstances. 

Inconvenient? Yes. But it is hardly the egregious infringement of “human rights” Hickox contends. She can sue if she wants. But in a court of law, she stands little chance.

What confounds me the most is her assertion that quarantines “stigmatize” health care professionals. That is ludicrous. 

Doctors, nurses and others who have placed their lives in jeopardy to try to save Ebola patients and/or ease their suffering are universally hailed as heroes. Quarantines do not change that opinion.

Why nurse Hickox cannot apply the same altruistic principles here at home to ensure the health and safety of her fellow Americans is mystifying.

Gregg Jarrett joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in 2002 and is based in New York. He currently serves as legal analyst and offers commentary across both FNC and FOX Business Network (FBN).