Pandemics: Why the Government Can Quarantine You

In January, the Chinese government effectively sealed off Wuhan, a city with a population of 11 million people. Officials shut down transportation in and out of the city and within the city. The quarantine-style lockdown has since been extended to include more than 50 million other people in China.

Chinese officials have even conducted door-to-door checks in Wuhan to round up the infected for further isolation. One Chinese villager was even tied to a post for refusing to wear a face mask….

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On paper, at least, the U.S. government has extensive authority to implement public-health measures to stop an epidemic. Government officials can:

prevent travel;

require vaccinations;

make people submit to medical exams;

commandeer private property.

The Department of Homeland Security has implemented a travel ban on non-citizens who have been anywhere in China recently. U.S. citizens, by contrast, cannot be turned away at the border, but they can be ordered into quarantine.

For example, the Americans on the Princess Diamond cruise ship in Yokohama, Japan, were required to undergo an additional two-week quarantine once evacuated back to the United States.

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Even those who are not sick can be ordered into quarantine—confined to their home or another location with others who may also have been exposed to a virus.

Under the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S. Code § 264), the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services is also authorized to take measures to prevent the entry and spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the United States and between states. The PHS Act was amended by the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act (PAHPA) of 2006External and the Pandemic and All-Hazards Reauthorization Act (PAHPRA) of 2013.

In the U.S. Supreme Court case of Gibbons v. Ogden, the court recognized a seemingly unlimited local power to quarantine as early as 1824.

However, large-scale isolation and quarantine was last enforced during the “Spanish Flu” pandemic in 1918–1919 during which over 600,000 Americans died. There has been no modern test, in practice or in the courts, on the limits of the federal government’s interstate quarantine authority.

Federal quarantine orders are actually implemented and enforced by state health authorities, not federal officials. The federal government can only directly impose quarantines at the nation’s borders. Within the borders of the U.S., quarantine powers are divided among 2,684 state, local, and tribal public-health departments. This could make a large-scale quarantine effort across the U.S. extremely difficult and inconsistent.

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By Executive Order of the President, federal isolation and quarantine are authorized for these communicable diseases:



Infectious tuberculosis



Yellow fever

Viral hemorrhagic fevers (like Ebola)

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

Flu that can cause a pandemic

What do you think? Should the U.S. government implement an even stricter travel ban to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 aka coronavirus?

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