The Enforceability of Quarantines

The Ebola virus is terrifying our nation. In times of uncertainty and alarm, the citizens of the United States look to their federal government for strong guidance and a clear plan for the country’s safety. The institution to provide such guidance in the case of a fatal epidemic in this country is the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or the CDC.

Unfortunately, even with the arrival of the virus in the U.S. in late September, the federal government and the CDC has failed to communicate effectively with the American people, failed to protect its citizens, and continually reserved or revised its position on transmission of the virus and safety guidelines. These missteps and lack of leadership have only created hysteria among citizens of one of the most medically advanced countries in the world.

And now, it is time for the states to step in and protect their citizens when the federal government has unsuccessfully done so. The Wall Street Journal is reporting this week that a number of states have taken the matter into their own hands and are enforcing new mandatory procedures to be imposed on those returning from West Africa and entering their state.

ebola

Current State and Local Approach

New York, New Jersey and Illinois are all enforcing a 21-day mandatory quarantine of anyone with direct exposure to the virus in West Africa upon entering the state. So far, the quarantine has only been imposed on medical professionals returning from the region after treating Ebola patients.

Illinois is requiring high-risk individuals to stay in their homes for the entire 21 days while being monitored daily by public health officials. Governor Pat Quinn says the mandatory quarantine is necessary in order to protect the publics health at large.

In all three states, state and local leaders have been vocal that they have the right to do what is necessary to protect citizens of their state from the deadly virus, and that the federal guidelines do not go far enough to prevent the disease from spreading.

Current Center for Disease Control and the White House Approach

Although the CDCs initial handling of Ebolas arrival in the United States was disastrous, the Center continues to update the federal guidelines for managing the disease. The White House and Obama Administration continue to stand behind the CDC.

The CDC currently recommends that anyone with direct exposure to the Ebola virus (i.e. someone who cared for an infected person without wearing protective gear) enter a 21-day voluntary quarantine. Thus, it is up to the individual whether or not they stay indoors and avoid public spaces while they may be experiencing the beginning stages of the disease.  Further, the CDC advises that a high-risk individual stay off public transportation and planes, avoid spaces where a large amount of people may congregate, and be monitored daily by public health workers.  But again, ultimately it is up to the high-risk individual how publically active they are and if they inform health officials of their exposure.

The institution of mandatory quarantines by state and local officials troubles both the CDC and the White House. Both feel that the enforcement of such quarantines only deters medical professionals from volunteering their services to the people of West Africa, where Western medical intervention may be imperative in order to keep the epidemic from spreading even further.

Legal Authority for Quarantine

Federal, state and local officials have the legal authority to mandate and enforce quarantines.

At the federal level, the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution (42 U.S. Code 264) grants the government the authority to enforce quarantine. The Secretary of Health and Human Services and the CDC may take steps to prevent the entry and spread of communicable disease from other countries into the U.S. and between the states. Further, the CDC may detain and examine anyone entering the U.S. and traveling between states that is suspected of carrying a communicable disease.

State and local governments have the legal authority to enforce quarantine within their borders. The U.S. Constitution grants states certain police powers in order to protect the health, safety and welfare of those living within its borders. It is within a state’s police power to mandate and enforce quarantines in order to prevent and control the spread of disease.

Ebola and other communicable viruses are a scary truth that our country must deal with. However, common sense and calm can go a long way when reacting to such alarming realities.

Both federal and state level laws can be confusing and difficult to interpret. Bring charged with a crime is a serious matter and often times such a charge is appealed. Please contact Brownstone Law if you need help with a civil or federal level appeal and we would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

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