Tobias Gibson

Tobias Gibson

Despite “predictions” that the coronavirus pandemic would disappear immediately following the presidential election, the virus rages across the country.

The United States and individual states continue to break unfortunate records of positive tests; daily deaths rates from the virus surge; hospitals are near, at or exceeding capacities. And, perhaps most importantly, President Donald Trump has turned his back on governing during the pandemic, eliminating even a vestige of hope that his administration will take any steps beyond falsely taking credit during the pandemic scourge.

Across Europe, where the pandemic is reaching tsunami-like levels in a new wave, countries and regions are again shutting down and sheltering in place. Meanwhile, in the United States, state governors are all too often ignoring the health issues in their states — or, in the case of Missouri, acting as though the pandemic has ended, ignoring news from throughout the state. Columbia, wisely, has extended its health order.

President-elect Joe Biden, in the first major policy act of his transition, has named a coronavirus task force in the hopes of controlling the widespread impact of the virus. He and his task force hope to “hit the ground running” and begin work immediately after taking office on Jan. 20. And the good news that there have been breakthroughs on possible vaccines is promising as well.

Of course, based on the overwhelming evidence that wearing a mask in public minimizes the spread of the virus, if more Americans opted for that simple act, a likely coming economic crisis could be averted. A recent NPR story suggests that if even 15% more people wore masks, it would have significant health and economic benefits. It would also prevent national and state governments from following Europe’s lead and reenacting measures like sheltering in place.

However, based on the last several months, it is unlikely that enough people will consistently opt to wear a mask. Thus, it is important for the public to be aware of the many laws on the books that President Biden will be able to call upon in his efforts to meet the challenges facing the country amid this national and global crisis.

One such law is the Public Health Service Act, which received some press early in the COVID-19 struggle. However, it is exceptionally important that more Americans are aware of the PHSA and the actions that it allows from the federal and state governments.

On Jan. 31, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar issued a national public health emergency declaration. In doing this, Secretary Azar acted within the powers granted to him by virtue of the Public Health Service Act, and the resulting declaration grants state, local and tribal health departments a higher degree of flexibility when making requests to the Department of Health and Human Services to authorize the temporary relocation of state, local or tribal personnel to combat the outbreak of COVID-19.

Although state governments possess and maintain the vast majority of the powers regarding quarantining citizens, Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act does afford the Surgeon General with powers to apprehend, isolate, or issue a release for individuals if such action is deemed necessary to mitigate the spread of infectious diseases.

Historically, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has opted to only provide counsel and leave the actual disease control itself to the states.

But, in 2017, the CDC issued updated regulations that indicated that it may “isolate, quarantine and examine, or bar travel of anyone within the country who CDC officials reasonably believe may bring a communicable disease into the country or spread it across state lines.” These updated regulations also require the CDC to provide medical care for an apprehended individual, though they are able to charge insurance companies for such care. And, while the CDC stated that it would utilize the least restrictive methods available to carry out these objectives, the regulations themselves do not actually require that.

Given the coronavirus fatigue that much of the nation is feeling, and especially given the pushback to state governments that shut down in the spring, we feel it is important that people know the expansive powers afforded governments in public health emergencies.

Jakob R. Gibson is a political science major and pre-law minor at Westminster College in Fulton. Tobias T. Gibson is the John Langton Professor of Legal Studies and Political Science at Westminster College.

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