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Smallpox plan grants sweeping power
by Michael Lasalandra

Thursday, November 8, 2001

Public health officials want to shut down roads and airports, herd people into sports stadiums and, if needed, quarantine entire cities in the event of a smallpox attack, according to a plan being forwarded to all 50 governors this week.

The plan, drafted at the request of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, could give states sweeping new powers.

``In tough times you have to make tough decisions,'' said Paul Jacobsen, assistant commissioner for the state Department of Public Health, who said he received a copy of the 50-page plan last week.

``There are times when you may have to evacuate, control facilities and roads (and) the distribution of health supplies, and force people to submit to examinations or be quarantined,'' he said.

``If the alternative is to allow the spread of infectious diseases, it's a no-brainer,'' he said.

The proposed ``model state emergency health powers act'' would have to be enacted by each state legislature. But federal health officials say it is needed to keep smallpox or other infectious agents from spreading.

Jacobsen said the model plan was drawn up with input from the governors, state legislatures, health agencies and others.

One provision of the plan would give health authorities control of private property for quarantine purposes, although Jacobsen said that in Massachusetts the preference would be to use state armories as much as possible. However, he noted such buildings as the FleetCenter could be used.

The model also calls for the rationing of drugs and other medical supplies by public health authorities, if necessary.

Under the proposed model, it would take only a declaration of a public health emergency by the governor to set the law's provisions in motion.

But the model also takes note of potential civil rights problems associated with the law, saying: ``The Act recognizes that a state's ability to respond to a public health emergency must respect the dignity and rights of persons.'' Sen. Richard Moore (D-Uxbridge), co-chairman of the Legislature's health care committee, has filed a bill that would incorporate many provisions of the model law. ``We're not as prepared as we ought to be,'' he said.

The bill would grant the state authority ``to use and appropriate property as necessary for the care, treatment and housing of patients, and for the destruction of contaminated materials.''

It calls for providing training, setting certification standards for administration of medicines, and establishing civil immunity for paramedics, EMS personnel and emergency health workers.

Moore's bill would examine the feasibility of developing a statewide pharmacy communications network to track prescription drug sales and calls for development of a program to certify nurses, including retired or inactive nurses, to be called into action in case of emergency. The bill would also look at the state's hospital capacity and preparedness of public health facilities.

Michael Lasalandra Talk Back


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