New federal health rules will give the U.S. government more leeway to put people in quarantine during an epidemic a fact that has some public health experts worried as President Donald Trump begins his term.
The regulations, released on former President Barack Obama’s last full day in office, were created to better protect the public from communicable diseases like the Ebola virus or avian flu.
But in the wrong hands, the measures might lead to unnecessary and unfair detentions, public health lawyers wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed.
Their scary speculation is mainly designed to pressure policymakers to enlist science-focused, highly qualified people not political appointees to head the nation’s public health agencies. While there’s no reason to fear widespread quarantines right away, the experts told Mashable that they want people to know just what’s at stake in Donald Trump’s administration.
So, what are the rules?
The new quarantine rules don’t expand the authority of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) only Congress can do that.
The CDC told Mashable the regulations won’t change the agency’s current practices for responding to a public health crisis. But the measures do spell out a broader range of actions the agency can take.
For instance, the CDC can restrict interstate travel during a health crisis.
Until now, state and local governments have been primarily responsible for imposing quarantines to protect local residents from diseases. The CDC is mostly active at the U.S. border, where it conducts health screenings of immigrants, or in special zones like airports, where it screens passengers during outbreaks, like the 2014 Ebola crisis.
The CDC published its final quarantine rule on Jan. 19, ending more than a decade’s worth of discussions on the issue. The rules take effect on Feb. 21.
What’s the problem?
The federal quarantine rules aren’t the issue per se, said Scott Burris, who directs the public health law research program at Temple University in Philadelphia.
It’s the matter of who will implement these rules that has public health experts concerned.
In the Times op-ed, Burris and other lawyers argued that the Trump administration could potentially abuse the updated quarantine rules by detaining people solely to look strong during a crisis even if such decisions aren’t medically necessary.
“There’s definitely pressure on public health leaders to take action that looks reassuring, including potentially locking somebody up who shouldn’t be locked up,” Burris told Mashable in an interview.
Trump’s own responses to public health issues have tended to stem from emotional reaction, not scientific evidence.
In 2014, he urged the government to ban all flights from “Ebola-infected countries” to stop the “plague” from spreading inside U.S. borders, an approach that medical experts didn’t think was needed. On the campaign trail in 2015, he wrongly accused Mexican immigrants of bringing “tremendous infections disease” across the border.
“The government needs to be able to protect public health, but they’re not going to protect public health if this authority is used in a manner that is based on fear-mongering, as opposed to science,” said Wendy Parmet, who co-authored the Times op-ed and directs the health policy and law program at Northeastern University in Boston.
Mashable asked the CDC to comment on concerns that federal officials could apply the new regulations based on politics and fear, not evidence of illness. A spokesperson replied by email:
In keeping with current CDC practice, the final rule is consistent with scientific principles and best practices to protect public health. CDC applies these practices using the least restrictive means available. Isolation or quarantine lasts only as long as necessary to protect the public by (1) providing a public health intervention or recommendation (such as voluntary testing or drug treatment, as appropriate and with the informed consent of the patient) and (2) ensuring that persons under federal public health orders do not infect or expose others if they are capable of spreading a quarantinable communicable disease.
What should we do?
For Burris, Parmet and other public health experts, the answers are clear: Policymakers should appoint a CDC leader with deep experience and solid scientific knowledge, and stave off sweeping budget cuts that would undermine the agency’s ability to respond in a crisis.
“We’re really interested in making sure that when the next crisis hits, the CDC has the resources and the experts that it needs to respond on the basis of the real evidence and science, and not on the basis of public fear and politics,” said Kyle Edwards, who has a doctorate in public health from Oxford University, is studying at Yale Law School, and was the op-ed’s lead author.
Trump’s pick for health secretary, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, would oversee the CDC appointment if confirmed. The orthopedic surgeon and six-term Republican congressman faced a second Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday.
Burris said that, despite his concerns about Trump, he wanted to “give a chance” to the president and his future health secretary.
“I’m urging the Trump administration to make sure the world’s greatest public health agency has the world’s greatest public health leader to run it,” he said.