Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Quarantine Controversy

By Jackson WeberPublished November 9, 2014

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As the use of quarantines continues to rise in the battle against Ebola in the U.S., their legality and effectiveness have come into question. Despite the varying state-by-state approaches to quarantines, policy coordination and clarification must occur to eliminate the domestic Ebola threat.
By Jackson Weber, 11/9/2014

            It seemed almost as if the scenario came straight from Hollywood. Scene one, deadly virus starts spreading through West Africa. Scene two, villagers begin dying and local governments struggle to contain the virus's dispersion. Scene three, the virus arrives in the U.S. Scene four, an epidemic ensues. Despite the movie storyline, the 2014 Ebola outbreak does closely resemble this plot in practice: except it is only scene three and the opportunity to prevent scene four remains.

            What began as a West African outbreak now hits quite close to home. The timeline of public fear began around six months ago when the initial cases emerged first in Guinea and then were confirmed in Liberia shortly after. Two months later, the World Health Organization confirmed the first Ebola deaths, in Sierra Leone, as the virus continued to move through West Africa. It was not until August that the virus made its way to the U.S., when two U.S. missionary physicians were flown back to America to be treated for the virus. In hopes of counteracting the virus's spread in West Africa, President Obama pledged 3,000 U.S. forces to help build clinics and fight the disease where it started. While these two were successfully treated in the U.S., Ebola unrelentingly ravaged West Africa. As death tolls climbed across the Atlantic, cases kept popping up in the U.S. with aid workers returning from West Africa or healthcare professionals treating the disease, like the one in Dallas who contracted the first domestic case.

            One somewhat controversial tool in the federal government's disease prevention arsenal is the use of quarantines. Due to the increase in newly arriving cases, this tactic has emerged at the forefront of the response. The last time the use of quarantines was relevant to public policy conversations was back in 2005 when the Bush Administration feared the possibility of pandemic flu and bioterrorism. At that point, President Bush and his advisors updated quarantine regulations primarily regarding the Centers for Disease Control's powers, airline records, and the idea of "provisional quarantine." The most controversial of these updated regulations was the ability of the CDC to issue provisional quarantines. This power allowed citizens considered "ill persons" to be held involuntarily for up to three days with no way to appeal their status. In 2010, when President Obama encountered the Bush-era quarantine procedures, he decided to terminate them and return to the original CDC quarantine rules: at the time, he believed some of the updated regulations were too controversial to continue.

            As Ebola cases keep emerging more frequently in the United States, some state authorities have opted to utilize the quarantine option with incoming travelers suspected of possibly carrying the illness. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie decided that citizens showing signs of Ebola would be placed in a 21-day quarantine upon their arrival. Immediately, some were quick to criticize these policies dramatic overreactions to the issue. One such critic was the Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Health, Dr. Anthony Fauci. He feels that the best way for government to prevent the outbreak is to act in Africa.

            In spite of the criticism these state policies received, others were supportive of the quarantine approach. Although they may intrude on individual rights, quarantines can also be thought of as a necessary evil to prevent the Ebola virus from progressing. Fauci is right that the best way to attack the virus is at home in Africa; however, quarantines in the U.S. have the potential to be a useful assistant in fighting the spread. Even though the legality of quarantine laws will most likely enter the court system, for now, this tactic can be very effective in combatting Ebola. Federal and state quarantine rules must be clarified in order for them to be utilized in a timely and consistent manner. Without proper coordination, the ability of governments to battle Ebola is severely limited and the population is put at a greater risk than currently exists. The fight against Ebola must be won domestically and abroad. Quarantines must proceed despite the question of their legality as long as a harmonious set of policies are decided upon by state and federal powers.