Coronavirus Quarantines Prompt Warnings of Possible Civil Rights Violations

February 13, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Residents wear surgical masks while crossing the road in order to prevent the spread of the Wuhan corona virus on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020 in Hong Kong. The World Health Organization called a meeting of its Emergency Committee Thursday to consider issuing a global alarm as the death toll from the spreading coronavirus rose to 170 and the number of cases jumped to more than 7,000. (Geovien So/SOPA Images/Zuma Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON – Federal and state officials are hurrying to figure out a long-term quarantine procedure for passengers arriving at U.S. airports who potentially carry the deadly coronavirus without violating their rights.

As the epidemic grows, they are considering quarantine within homes where the arriving passengers are staying. So far, military bases are the only place Americans under quarantine have been housed in the U.S.

“More cases are likely to be identified in the coming days, including more cases in the United States,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning on its website. “It’s also likely that person-to-person spread will continue to occur, including in the United States.”

The military’s role in containing the virus is drawing warnings from civil liberties groups.

“Public panic will predictably spark calls for tough, even draconian measures that treat the problem like a law enforcement or national security issue rather than a public health matter,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Recent history after a 2014 Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa and the 2009 swine flu that appeared to start in Mexico showed how political officials can overreact, Stanley said. In both cases, they considered travel bans.

“We at the ACLU have always acknowledged that civil liberties must sometimes give way when it comes to fighting a communicable disease, but only in ways that are scientifically justified,” he wrote in an editorial.

The ACLU and others are warning that treating sick people like enemies could make them go underground to avoid the authorities, thereby increasing the spread of disease.

Stanely appeared to take a swipe at the U.S. government when he wrote, “The evidence is clear that travel bans and quarantines are not the solution.”

Eleven airports nationwide are authorized to receive passengers who might carry the coronavirus, which has been traced to the Hubei province of China. They are being housed under quarantine at four U.S. military bases: Camp Ashland in Nebraska; Travis Air Force Base in California; Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego and Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

Officials who set quarantine rules face sensitive legal dilemmas that balance 4th Amendment privacy, 14th Amendment due process and Commerce Clause provisions of the Constitution. Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S. Code § 264) gives the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services authority to prevent the spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries, such as through isolation and quarantine.

The rarely-invoked quarantines are carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Violating a quarantine order is punishable by fines and imprisonment.

Constitutional privacy rights require isolation or quarantine to be as unrestricted as possible without endangering other persons.

Typically, persons being watched for illness are conditionally released if they comply with medical monitoring and surveillance.

Arrangements for quarantine can be made by state and local officials under agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In one case, Loudoun County, Va., Health Department officials say they want to make the quarantined persons arriving at Dulles International Airport as comfortable as possible while they figure out a plan that could last for months.

Thirteen cases of coronavirus have been reported in the United States. In China, the number has climbed to nearly 45,000, killing 1,113 of them. 

The World Health Organization is warning about a pandemic.

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