Saturday, November 01, 2014

Epidemics, Police Powers, and Public Health Law

A state's police powers to safeguard the public health, the legal source of quarantines, vaccine requirements, and other such measures, drew widespread interest this week with the ongoing Ebola epidemic.  Even when considered carefully in the light of scientific knowledge, these powers are often pitted against the civil liberties of the individuals to be quarantined or vaccinated. 

Yesterday, a Maine District Court judge ruled in favor of a nurse recently returned home from treating Ebola patients in West Africa.  She had challenged Maine's governor and state health officials who wanted her to continue in "in home" quarantine, not going to work or out in public, for 21 days, although she had never exhibited any symptoms of Ebola.  The judge ruled that pending a scheduled hearing, she need only submit to "direct active monitoring" as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, including coordination of her travel with public health authorities.  Read the judge's order here.

A brief introduction to public health police powers, and the landmark 1905 U.S. Supreme Court case that addressed these issues during a deadly smallpox epidemic, is provided by this recent Fortune article based on an interview with law professor Lawrence Gostin of Georgetown University. It also references Professor Gostin's 2005 article, "Jacobson v. Massachusetts at 100 Years: Police Power and Civil Liberties in Tension" (95 Am. J. Pub. Health 576 (2005)), which further explores the legal issues confronted in the Jacobson case and in cases taken from today's headlines.     

Ernster, the Virtual Library Cat

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