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Questions about the U.S. government’s legal authority to contain the Ebola virus are increasing, even as federal officials attempt to keep public panic at bay by diverting the focus from the hypothetical.
Beyond the traveler screening mandates and medical support already underway, federal officials could take several dramatic steps to protect the United from Ebola, including quarantines, a ban on travel to or from foreign countries, and the declaration of a public health emergency that would allow the Health and Human Services Department to waive certain federal requirements and tap into a reserve account to fund response. This, according to a report by stripes.com.
The federal government’s powers are ultimately secondary to those of the states, which hold the police power function that gives them the legal authority to isolate infected individuals or force them to accept treatment. In Texas, health officials in Dallas have quarantined the family of the only Ebola victim, Thomas Duncan, in a house until they are sure they didn’t pick up the disease.
His fiancée, her son and two men had to miss a memorial service after Duncan died. This is according to local news reports.
If a state or local jurisdiction response doesn’t prevent the spread of a disease to another state, HHS can step in under the Public Health Services Act (PL 78-410). But that would mostly be to provide resources and expertise — not to take over, said Gene Matthews, chief legal adviser to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1979 to 2004.
The National Guard’s highly trained Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams could be a particularly critical capability in the event of any stateside Ebola outbreak. The Guard has at least one of these teams in each state, territory and Washington, D.C.
The state-controlled units, which are made up of 22 full-time personnel, are trained for a range of missions, including providing immediate response to the release of hazardous materials or other disasters that could result in a catastrophic loss of life and property.