By Mary Holloway Richard
Guest Column in The Journal Record, Published Oct. 15, 2014
Incidence of Ebola on American soil allows for review of legal underpinnings of the public health response to “catastrophic health emergencies.” This term means, for our purposes, occurrence of imminent threat of an illness or health condition that is believed to be caused by the appearance of an infectious agent that poses a high probability of a large number of deaths in the affected population or widespread exposure to the infectious or toxic agent that poses a significant risk of substantial future harm to a large number of people in the affected population (63 O.S. §6104).
The federal government’s rapid response derives its power from the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution (42 U.S.C.A. §264, Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act). The secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services is authorized to take measures to prevent the spread of threat of disease from other countries to the U.S. and between states. Borders are being monitored more stringently. States and tribes have the political power to detail those within their borders in an effort to contain such a threat. Police power functions include isolation-quarantine, access to and use of private health information, closure, lockdown, curfews, and appropriation and destruction of property, including pets and other animals. Those powers are derived from the state’s right to take action against individuals for the good of the people at large.
Oklahoma State Health Department regulations provide for isolation and quarantine including proper due process for affected people (OAC 310:521-7-6). On Oct. 10, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a memorandum to state survey agency directors (the state Department of Health in Oklahoma) to strongly urge hospitals to fully implement recent Centers for Disease Control policies for Ebola, including hospital evaluation and preparedness checklists and algorithms to evaluate patients returning from countries affected by the disease.
Emerging legal issues include privacy rights, provider and volunteer liability, due process and Fourth Amendment protections for mandatory testing and screening of citizens, licensure and scope of practice issues for noninstitutional health services providers giving aid, myriad informed consent, right to refuse treatment, and social distancing and remote handling of citizens including the effect of Americans with Disabilities Act protections.