On August 8th, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The recent arrival in the United States of several health care workers who contracted the disease, combined with the first diagnosis of a case in the U.S. at a hospital in Dallas, has sparked discussion about the appropriate government response. Aside from the various policy considerations at issue, the outbreak has generated several legal questions about the federal government’s authority to restrict specific passengers’ travel and/or contain the outbreak of an infectious disease. These questions include, inter alia, whether the federal government may: (1) restrict which countries U.S. nationals may travel to in the event of a public health crisis; (2) bar the entry into the United States of people who may have been infected by a disease; and (3) impose isolation or quarantine measures in order to control infectious diseases.
Passport restrictions on which countries U.S. citizens may visit can be imposed by the Secretary of State. Pursuant to the Passport Act, the Secretary of State may “grant and issue passports” according to rules designated by the President, and may impose restrictions on the use of passports to travel to countries “where there is imminent danger to the public health or the physical safety of United States travellers” (sic). The Supreme Court has recognized that the authority to “grant and issue” passports includes the power to impose “area restrictions” – limits on travel to specific countries (restrictions must comply with the Due Process Clause of the Constitution). Although passport restrictions are not criminally enforceable, they may prevent travelers from boarding a flight to a restricted area.
Restrictions may also be imposed on who may enter the United States, though the range of applicable restrictions may differ depending upon whether a person seeking entry into the country is a U.S. national. The government enjoys authority under federal immigration law to bar the entry of a foreign national on specific health-related grounds, including when a particular foreign national is determined to have a “communicable disease of public health significance.” More broadly, section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act authorizes the President, pursuant to proclamation, to direct the denial of entry to any alien or class of aliens whose entry into the country “would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.”
These restrictions do not apply to U.S. citizens, who may enjoy a constitutional right to reenter the country. Nonetheless, certain travel restrictions may impede the ability of any person – regardless of citizenship – from traveling to the United States in a manner that potentially exposes others to a communicable disease. For example, airlines flying to the U.S. are permitted under Department of Transportation regulations to refuse transportation to passengers with infectious diseases who have been determined to pose a “direct threat” to the health and safety of others. In making this determination, airlines may rely on directives from the CDC and other government agencies. Pilots of flights to the United States are also required to report certain illnesses they encounter during flight before arrival into the U.S.
In addition, the Department of Homeland Security and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintain a public health “Do Not Board” (DNB) list, which contains the names of people who are likely to be contagious with a communicable disease, may not adhere to public health recommendations, and are likely to board an aircraft. Airlines are not permitted to issue a boarding pass to people on the DNB list for flights departing from or arriving into the United States. People placed on the DNB list are also “assigned a public health lookout record,” which will alert Customs and Border Protection officers in the event the person attempts to enter the country through a port of entry. The CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine (DGMQ) can conduct exit screening at foreign airports to identify travelers with communicable diseases and alert the relevant local authorities.
Finally, both federal and state governments have authority to impose isolation and quarantine measures to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases. While the terms are often used interchangeably, quarantine and isolation are actually two distinct concepts. Quarantine typically refers to separating or restricting the movement of individuals who have been exposed to a contagious disease but are not yet sick. Isolation refers to separating infected individuals from those who are not sick. Historically, the primary authority for quarantine and isolation exists at the state level as an exercise of the state’s police power in accordance with its particular laws and policies.
However, the CDC is also authorized to take measures “to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the States or possessions, or from one State or possession into any other State or possession.” In order to do so, the implementing regulations “authorize the detention, isolation, quarantine, or conditional release of individuals.” This authority is limited to diseases identified by an Executive Order of the President, a list which currently includes Ebola. Whether an isolation or quarantine order originates with the federal or state government, such orders will presumably be subject to habeas corpus challenges, and must also comport with the Due Process Clause of the Constitution.
View the original CRS Legal Sidebar here (pdf) includes active links.
And that legal challenge may soon be upon us. On October 26, Kaci Hickox, a nurse placed under mandatory quarantine in New Jersey, went on CNN on Sunday and criticized the “knee-jerk reaction by politicians” to Ebola. According to CNN, Hickox, an epidemiologist who was working to help treat Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, has tested negative twice for Ebola and does not have symptoms. Norman Siegel, Hickox’s attorney, and a former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union told CNN that he will be filing papers in court for Hickox to have a hearing no later than five days from the start of her confinement. Siegel told CNN that Hickox’s quarantine is based on fear.
Here is the link to the Executive Order 13295 of April 4, 2003 cited above by the CRS brief via:
[T]he following communicable diseases are hereby specified pursuant to section 361(b) of the Public Health Service Act:
(a) Cholera; Diphtheria; infectious Tuberculosis; Plague; Smallpox; Yellow Fever; and Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers (Lassa, Marburg, Ebola, Crimean-Congo, South American, and others not yet isolated or named).
July 31, 2014 Update
“(b) Severe acute respiratory syndromes, which are diseases that are associated with fever and signs and symptoms of pneumonia or other respiratory illness, are capable of being transmitted from person to person, and that either are causing, or have the potential to cause, a pandemic, or, upon infection, are highly likely to cause mortality or serious morbidity if not properly controlled. This subsection does not apply to influenza.”
A side note, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power is currently traveling to the countries in West Africa hardest hit with the ebola outbreak:
Now, since Ambassador Power is not a medical worker, she probably will not be subjected to the NJ/NY mandatory quarantine when she gets back. However, on October 22, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that public health authorities will begin active post-arrival monitoring of travelers whose travel originates in Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea. Active post-arrival monitoring, according to the CDC means that travelers without febrile illness or symptoms consistent with Ebola will be followed up daily by state and local health departments for 21 days from the date of their departure from West Africa. Except that Ambassador Power’s return trip will not be originating from West Africa but from Belgium, the last stop on this West Africa-Europe trip before returning to the U.S.
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