Yesterday, a bill was sent to Florida’s Governor Rick Scott that would give health officials permission to use police force to quarantine someone suspected of being infected with a highly contagious disease. House Bill 697 designated for public health emergencies, was passed by the Florida House on Wednesday, and then unanimously by the Florida Senate on Thursday.
The Bill was presented by the Health Quality Subcommittee on March 4, and the Health and Human Services Committee on March 12, with backing by Representatives Julio Gonzalez and Gayle Harrell. The legislation comes a few months after Florida health officials expressed concerns about how the federal authorities were handling communicable disease cases such as Ebola.
Last fall, Governor Scott ordered state officials to monitor, twice a day, anyone returning from places the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designated as affected by Ebola. If Scott signs the bill, which would become effective July 1, 2015, officials from the Department of Health would be allowed to use police to require the isolation of someone who is suspected of being infected, even if they are not yet ill. It would also prohibit anyone from falsely claiming to a health care provider, or falsely reporting to a law enforcement officer, that they had contracted a communicable disease, with criminal penalties resulting from such actions.
The Bill defines isolation and quarantine in this manner. Someone can be isolated if it is reasonably believed they have a communicable disease, while quarantine can be enforced to separate someone who has been exposed to a disease but is not yet showing symptoms. Quarantine laws in the U.S. have been in place since the 1700’s. Threats to public health such as the possibility of bioterrorism and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) emphasize the importance of such laws and give credence to allowing the state to have legal authority to protect the public’s health.
Historically, quarantines have been enforced in countries for everything from leprosy to the bubonic plague. In the 1700’s when smallpox and yellow fever threatened to strike New York, the city used ships anchored off Bedloe’s Island, now known as the home of the Statue of Liberty, to quarantine contagious passengers and crew from arriving vessels.
The Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, part of the CDC’s National Center for Infectious Diseases, controls quarantine issues in the United States today.