Quarantines: Can The Government Force Me To Stay Somewhere Against My Will?

It’s the lead news story most nights – people who have been exposed to the Ebola virus are being kept in isolation or forced into quarantines at home. The argument is that this is done to protect the general public, but can a government do this even when there are questions as to whether or not the person even has the illness? They can, and here’s why:

The Public Health Services Act (1944) gives the federal government the right to enact a quarantine to contain infectious diseases from other countries. The Centers for Disease Control is the agency charged with implementing any of these decisions. The CDC is able to detain, medically examine and release people whom they have suspected carry certain diseases, and they regularly do monitor people coming into the country for signs of certain diseases.

States are generally allowed to enact any type of legislation where federal laws do not cover. States also have what are called “police powers” which allow them to take any action to protect the health, safety and welfare of its citizens. That being said, even if the federal government does not issue a quarantine, a state may decide to do so.

Many times these powers translate into the government being able to restrict people’s movements when they have reason to believe that a person may be carrying a disease, even if they have no symptoms.

In the case of Ebola, what makes this a tricky issue is that symptoms may not show up for up to 21 days. Once someone begins to show symptoms, they are contagious.

Seems like an AWFUL lot of power. Are there any restrictions?

There are. Due Process requires that the imposition of quarantine or an isolation order not be unreasonable, arbitrary or oppressive.

Is this common, and what are some states doing now?

It’s not common at all. The last time any type of federal quarantine was used was during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918-1919.

Some states are imposing 21 day quarantines because that is how long it typically takes for someone who has Ebola to show symptoms.

What happens if someone is subject to quarantine and then disregards the order?

Federal quarantine orders are enforced by US Customs and Border agents as well as the Coast Guard, and breaking the order can earn you a fine or imprisonment. State quarantines are enforced by local public health agencies and police and law enforcement. Generally speaking if someone violates a quarantine order it is a low level criminal offense.

What’s happening in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania does have a statute which allows the state to quarantine people who have a communicable disease, to quarantine contacts of people who have a communicable disease, or any other disease control measure considered to be appropriate for the surveillance of disease, when the disease control measure is necessary to protect the public from the spread of infectious agents.

Pennsylvania has not quarantine anyone yet, but reports have stated that currently over 100 people are being “actively monitored” for signs of the disease.

As always, for a referral to an attorney, contact the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service at (412)261-5555, or visit their website at www.pittsburghlawyerfinder.org.