Portland, Oct 31 – When President Barack Obama visited Maine on Thursday, he didn’t come within 300 miles of the nurse protesting her state-mandated Ebola quarantine. But he has inserted himself in the middle of a growing debate between the federal government and states over their rules for health workers returning from the Ebola zone.
Kaci Hickox, the Doctors Without Borders worker hailed by the White House as a hero for treating Ebola patients in Liberia, on Thursday defied the demands the Maine’s Republican governor to remain inside her home near the Quebec border. She was spotted leaving her house by bike, trailed by a state trooper. Obama, who traveled to Portland on Thursday for a campaign rally, has sought to tamp down on fears of recently-returned health workers, inviting a group of them to the White House Wednesday and hailing their mission as essential.
“When they come home, they deserve to be treated properly,” he said in the East Room on Wednesday, flanked by doctors still within the 21-day incubation period. “They deserve to be treated like the heroes that they are.” Rules implemented this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention require closer monitoring of health workers returning from West Africa, but stop short of requiring any type of quarantine.
Many states have gone further, insisting nurses and doctors remain isolated for three weeks. The White House has questioned those state laws, saying the rules are too strict and not guided by the science of Ebola. The virus is spread through bodily fluids and patients aren’t considered contagious until they’re showing symptoms of the disease.
“When I hear people talking about American leadership and then are promoting policies that would avoid leadership and have us running in the opposite direction and hiding under the covers, it makes me a little frustrated,” Obama said on Wednesday. Hickox was initially quarantined inside a tent in Newark before being allowed to leave for her home in Maine, where Gov.
Paul LePage said he’d require her to remain inside her home for 21 days. Hickox said the state rules amount to a restriction on her civil rights and has threatened a legal battle over the mandated isolation. LePage, an Republican whose past off-color remarks have garnered national headlines, sent state troopers to Hickox’s Fort Kent home to enforce the quarantine.
On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said only that Obama believed state policies “should be guided by science,” but wouldn’t go to say whether Obama believed Maine’s rules lived up to that tenet. A five-hour drive south from the unfolding legal machinations, Democrats welcomed Obama for a political rally supporting LePage’s opponent Mike Michaud, who scored a boost to his chances on Wednesday when the state’s independent Sen. Angus King lent his backing.
Michaud, a six-term congressman, is locked in a dead heat with LePage. Like past races in Maine, an independent is also in the mix, though Eliot Cutler is running well behind the two main party candidates. Maine’s gubernatorial contest is one of only a handful of stops Obama will make on the campaign trail this year; his record low approval ratings and controversial policies have made him unwelcome in key Senate battles.
Thursday Obama hit Republicans as full of bad ideas, and resistant to measures he said could help improve the lives of middle class Americans, like boosting the minimum wage and insisting on equal pay for women. The objective in Maine, according to University of New England political science professor Brian Duff, is to get Democrats to just “act like Democrats” — that is, vote for Michaud over the trailing independent.
“There is a sense that voters just need a final push to come back into the fold,” Duff said. “They are helped by the fact that the current Republican governor is not popular, and has very conservative views that are out of step with the majority of Mainers.” One area LePage and and his rival have found agreement, however, is quarantining Hickox. “It’s the state’s responsibility to make sure that people are protected here in the state of Maine for public safety and I support the 21 day quarantine,” the Democrat told reporters Wednesday.