The Cautionary Instruction: Communicable disease and quarantine in Pennsylvania

Friday, 08 August 2014 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued its highest-level alert in response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

Two Americans, Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, have been returned to the U.S. from Liberia and are being treated for Ebola at the Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

Could a patient with a communicable disease, or merely exposed to a communicable disease, be isolated or quarantined in Pennsylvania?

In 2007, I wrote a column for the Pennsylvania Law Weekly on the issue of quarantine -- in light of the Ebola scare the law in Pennsylvania is worth revisiting.

The United States Constitution prohibits the federal government as well as state governments from depriving individuals of specifically protected liberty rights. There are exceptions. In Pennsylvania the health and well-being of the community at large may supersede individual rights of freedom and liberty.

Although matters relating to public health have been left largely to individual states to manage, the federal government does have jurisdiction over cases where communicable disease is introduced into this country from a foreign source or to prevent or curtail the interstate movement of communicable disease.

In Pennsylvania the Disease Prevention and Control Law (DPCL) provides that the state department of health, county/municipal health departments or a local heath authority may, without court intervention, order an individual quarantined or isolated if the individual poses a significant threat to the health of the public and no lesser restrictive means is warranted. The court may be asked to review the order within 24 hours of service upon the individual being detained.

The DPCL defines quarantine as the “limitation of freedom of movement of persons . . . who have been exposed to a communicable disease.” The limitations may continue for a period of time equal to the incubation period of the disease. Isolation is the separation of persons already infected, from other people to prevent direct transmission of disease.

As far back as 1902 the U.S. Supreme Court recognized isolation and quarantine as legitimate public health techniques to contain the spread of infectious disease.

In the months following the September 11th attack, the Pennsylvania legislature went even further by enacting the Counterterrorism Planning, Preparedness and Response Act (Act). The Act provides the governor with authority to order the temporary isolation or quarantine of individuals or groups. The Act, although not clear, was intended for use following a suspected act of bioterrorism. The statute does not specifically preclude the Act from being utilized during a pandemic.

The governor has also been empowered to order a “cordon sanitaire” which is the quarantining of an entire town or city. Such an order from the governor is subject to judicial review.

(Image: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials have a conference call on Ebola earlier this week with CDC team members deployed in West Africa from the agency's Emergency Operations Center in Atlanta. David Goldman/Associated Press)


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His new book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010: The Crimes, Arrests, Trials, Appeals, Last Meals, Final Words and Executions of 46 Persons in the United States is now available from McFarland & Company publishers.

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