The Law and Limits of Quarantine during Covid-19 Pandemic
Covid-19 has circumnavigated the globe at a rapid pace. Governments and healthcare officials are struggling with the mounting waves of cases and how to effectively manage the crisis. Public movement has been, and continues to be, a prime area for management. Quarantines and travel bans have been implemented and change almost daily.
Public Health Definitions
In public health practice, “quarantine” refers to the separation of persons (or communities) who have been exposed to an infectious disease
In contrast, isolation applies to the separation of persons who are known to be infected
Legal Definition (US Law)
US law uses the word “quarantine” to refer to both types of interventions and travel limits
Isolation and quarantine can be voluntary or imposed by law
States have the power and authority to implement these restrictions in response to a public health threat. For example, the tristate area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut have a coordinated approach of asking its residents to ‘self-quarantine’ at home even if healthy, preventing large gatherings, and closing nonessential retail businesses.
Federal government can intervene as well, but its power is limited. Quarantine is an option at the federal level if there is a concern related to disease spread over state lines or national borders. For example, nonessential travel between the United States and its neighbors Mexico and Canada has been restricted. In general, courts will be reluctant to interfere unless the quarantine is unreasonable or appears motivated by racial animus. For example, a quarantine during the bubonic plague of 1900 in San Francisco was struck down as being racially motivated and not suited to prevent spread of disease. On the other hand, two California universities were permitted to quarantine faculty and students during a measles outbreak.
While these measures of social distancing are necessary, immediate funding for medical supplies, PPE, and testing kits, along with expansion of hospital bed numbers (e.g., reopening of closed hospitals or developing temporary facilities) are vital to stemming the wave of morbidity and mortality that is flooding the U.S. healthcare system. As of this writing, Congress has authorized several aid packages that mandate private health plans to provide coverage for COVID-19 diagnostic testing, including the cost of a provider, urgent care center, and emergency room visits in order to receive testing; coverage without cost sharing for COVID-19 testing and screening provided during a telehealth office visit; and approved personal respiratory protective devices as covered countermeasures.
This topic will be updated to reflect significant policy shifts.
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