What If a Quarantine Happens in Your City?
During the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic, officials in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania established martial law.
Residents were not allowed to travel to other cities. For fear of spreading or contracting the disease. A few years later, Congress passed a federal quarantine law to make such edicts legal.
Quarantines and isolations in the United States have been very rare since then. Part of the reason has been the advancement of medicine.
But they do occur. In 2007, federal officials isolated a man believed to be carrying a dangerous strain of tuberculosis.
Seven years later, travelers from West Africa to the U.S. were quarantined by some states. That was due to the Ebola virus.
Quarantines may be coming
With the spread of the coronavirus, quarantines are in the news again. They’ve occurred in China, where the coronavirus started. And in other countries.
That includes America, which recently quarantined travelers from China. It marked the first federal mandatory quarantine of travelers to the U.S. in 50 years. The last one occurred in the Sixties.
We could be heading toward more quarantines as the coronavirus spreads here. What would a quarantine look like in your area of the country?
It depends on a variety of factors. Including the extent of the spread. As well as state or local laws.
Public health vs. citizens’ rights
Before we go on, let’s make sure we’re on the same page regarding two terms. They often get mixed up. “Quarantine” refers to separating seemingly healthy people exposed to a virus from the public.
“Isolation” is for people who are already sick. It’s a commonly accepted measure for halting communicable diseases.
Officials should balance public health with the rights of travelers and citizens when deciding on a quarantine.
Some travelers might have no idea they’re carrying the coronavirus. Others may know they have it, but come to the U.S. to seek treatment here.
Travelers can appeal
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has the authority to issue a mandatory quarantine. At least for international travelers.
But travelers could challenge that authority on constitutional grounds.
In the past, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed for quarantined travelers to appeal in court.
The CDC can seek the help of local and state officials. To make sure travelers exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus are confined.
‘Slow the entry of this virus’
The current U.S. quarantine of travelers has an obvious goal. Dr. Nancy Messonnier is the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
She says, “The goal here is to slow the entry of this virus into the United States.”
Americans who have been in China’s Hubei province within the past 14 days are quarantined. As well as those who have traveled to other parts of mainland China and are showing symptoms.
Also being quarantined are Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China by the State Department. Messonnier said it is impossible to catch every traveler with the coronavirus. But she believes they can stop the majority.
Now, what about average U.S. citizens who have not traveled internationally? Can they be legally quarantined?
Yes. Government officials have extensive authority to implement public health measures. Assuming they are trying to stop an epidemic or pandemic.
Most cases are many decades old, but there is legal precedent for quarantining individuals.
Among the legal cases are Gibbons v. Ogden in 1824 and Jacobson v. Massachusetts in 1905.
Power to quarantine ‘is beyond question’
Here’s what the U.S. Supreme Court has declared. “The power of the States to enact and enforce quarantine laws for the safety and the protection of the health of their inhabitants… is beyond question.”
The government may decide a quarantine is medically justified. If so, individual rights take a back seat to the greater good.
Government officials can force people to submit to medical exams. And can insist on vaccinations. They can also prevent travel and commandeer private property.
Quarantine may be the most extreme use of government power over people who have committed no crime.
Local authorities will decide
The federal government establishes quarantine guidelines. But it’s up to local and state health departments to carry them out.
Some states may decide to ignore federal recommendations. Other states could enforce even stronger ones.
They have the authority to lock down an entire neighborhood. As long as they feel it’s necessary to prevent the spread of a disease like the coronavirus.
They could also remove sick individuals from homes and isolate them in facilities. Again, if they feel that would help stop the coronavirus spread.
Self-quarantine is preferable
The consequences for disobeying a quarantine order are severe. Quarantine violators are subject to a fine of up to $100,000, a year in jail, or both.
And that’s if the violation does not result in someone’s death. What if someone died due to a quarantine violation? Then the fine rises to up to $250,000, a year in jail, or both.
James Hodge is the director of the Center for Public Health Law and Policy at Arizona State University.
He says the better solution is to allow people to self-quarantine at home. Because “the implementation of federal, heavy-handed quarantine can be problematic and can backfire.”
Are quarantines effective?
Having said all this, the odds that many Americans will be quarantined because of the coronavirus seem low. That’s based on what health officials say.
Dr. James Kazura is the director of Case Western Reserve University’s Center for Global Health and Diseases.
“There’s just no good evidence, at least in modern times, that (a mass quarantine) has made a big difference,” he said.
He believes it’s very unlikely a U.S. city or state will try anything similar to the mass quarantine in China. “I think it would be very hard to do something like that in this country,” he said.
Kazura added that quarantines might actually put more people at risk. That would be due to keeping them in close quarters.
The key is to be ready
Hopefully we will never experience a quarantine. Because of the coronavirus or any other epidemic or pandemic.
But there may come a time when we need to temporarily stay away from public places. It might be the safest way to stay healthy.
And the best way to do that is to prepare.