10/29/2014 07:22 EDT | Updated 12/29/2014 05:59 EST

Ebola prompts a legal standoff in the U.S., and Obama takes sides

WASHINGTON - A heated confrontation is developing in the United States over Ebola quarantines and, on Wednesday, President Barack Obama forcefully weighed in on one side.

The president threw his support behind health-care workers as a legal showdown loomed, pitting one nurse against a state that wants her quarantined and has already called in the police against her.

The U.S. has been thrust into a political debate over Ebola unlike anything experienced yet in Canada — due to several diagnosed cases that have coincided with national midterm elections.

At the epicentre of the dispute is Kaci Hickox, a nurse returning from Sierra Leone who has vowed to ignore a quarantine order from her home state of Maine.

She says there's no scientific reason for that order and argues that it's driven purely by politics. Her state governor, who is seeking re-election next week, has responded by sending the police to her boyfriend's house and has promised to weigh his legal options should she try to leave.

A poll this week suggests a whopping 80 per cent of Americans support mandatory quarantines for people arriving from West Africa — a measure the medical community calls unnecessary and perhaps even counter-productive, as it could discourage health workers from heading off to fight the disease.

Obama surrounded himself with some of those health workers Wednesday, leaving no doubt about his own sympathies in the dispute. He even expressed some anger at politicians calling for stricter measures, like travel bans and mandatory quarantines.

"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 at a White House event with workers heading to, or returning from, the affected areas in Africa.

"America has never been defined by fear. We are defined by courage and passion and hope and selflessness and sacrifice and a willingness to take on challenges when others can't and others will not, and ordinary Americans who risk their own safety to help those in need and who inspire thereby the example of others, all in the constant pursuit of building a better world — not just for ourselves, but for people in every corner of the Earth."

He called the health workers American heroes, deserving of the nation's respect and gratitude. One of his guests Wednesday was Dr. Kent Brantly, an Ebola survivor.

Obama said U.S. efforts are helping put a dent in the disease. The World Health Organization said Wednesday that the rate of new Ebola infections in Liberia appears to be declining. Still, it warned that the epidemic, which has killed 5,000, is far from over and is still raging in parts of Sierra Leone.

The U.S. has struggled with its response — with its protocols shifting as the disease progresses.

Even within the federal government itself, there are contradictions. The U.S. military has instituted what amounts to a mandatory quarantine for soldiers returning from Africa — a divergence in federal policy that the White House struggled to explain Wednesday.

Obama's political opponents, many of them on the campaign trail with a week to go in midterm elections, are demanding tougher guidelines than what the Centers For Disease Control recommends: that people who have accidentally touched Ebola-laced bodily fluids should voluntarily avoid crowds and work for 21 days, while lesser-risk people who were close to the disease should have their temperature taken and reported twice a day.

Health experts have repeatedly declared that there's no risk from anyone not showing symptoms, including a fever. In Canada, the current protocols also fall short of mandatory quarantine.

But the debate took off in the U.S. after Hickox returned home and was forced to stay in a plastic tent outside a New Jersey hospital, under state guidelines. She got into a public spat with Gov. Chris Christie, who allowed her to return home to Maine. Now she's having a similar dispute with Maine Gov. Paul LePage.

"I don't plan on sticking to the guidelines," Hickox said on the "Today" show.

"I remain appalled by these home quarantine policies that have been forced upon me even though I am in perfectly good health."

Her lawyer Norman Siegel told The Associated Press she won't co-operate further unless the state lifts "all or most of the restrictions." If the state goes to court, the case could serve as a test as to the legality of state quarantines during the Ebola scare.

The governor said he was seeking legal authority to keep her in isolation.

"We hoped that the health-care worker would voluntarily comply with these protocols, but this individual has stated publicly she will not abide by the protocols. We are very concerned about her safety and health and that of the community," LePage said.

The governor cancelled his campaign events Wednesday to deal with Hickox's case.