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November 25, 2001

Bioterror fears lead to plans for quarantine
By Steve Miller

     State legislatures facing the threat of bioterrorism are preparing to tackle the sensitive idea of quarantine, a practice that has fallen off the map as medical breakthroughs eradicated the threat of mass contagion.
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     Isolation and quarantine are now being discreetly reviewed by state officials across the country. In the wake of recent anthrax attacks — and with concerns of bioterrorism using such deadly diseases as smallpox — a newly issued 46-page model for emergency preparations has been distributed to state health officials and governors by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
     In a section titled "Isolation and Quarantine," the rules are laid out clearly.
     "A person subject to isolation or quarantine shall obey the public health authority's rules and orders, shall not go beyond the isolation or quarantine premises, and shall not put himself or herself in contact with any person not subject to isolation or quarantine," the draft reads.
     The action would require a court order to enact the isolation, but a provision also allows authorities to act without the affidavit "if any delay would pose an immediate threat to the public health."
     "I am aware that there will be people who will oppose this," said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown law professor and one of several academics who drafted the model. "They will say that it interferes with property rights, which would be a libertarian view. And there are those from the far left that will say it infringes on civil liberties. But the vast majority of people in the middle want to be protected."
     The American Civil Liberties Union declined to comment on the CDC plan, with a spokeswoman saying "it is not something we are going to address right now."
     The ACLU's stance betrays a post-anthrax awareness that the war on terrorism may mean limiting certain freedoms. Public health laws pertaining to quarantine have been neglected as Americans have lived healthier lives than ever before, free of highly contagious disease, Mr. Gostin said, so the laws dealing with such procedures "suffer from being highly antiquated and confusing."
     Smallpox is now considered the most effective biological weapon, a highly contagious virus that is inhaled. One infected person can be the source of a widespread outbreak, and the disease has a 30 percent death rate among people who are not vaccinated.
     The scenario for a biological weapons attack using smallpox, as laid out by authorities, is truly one of terror.
     Designated hospitals would admit patients, and federal agents, as well as police and military troops, would descend on the location of the outbreak.
     "Even one case of smallpox would bring that, because that just isn't a disease you see any more," said Cynthia Honssinger, director of legal and regulatory affairs with the Colorado Department of Health.

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