Secrecy News

A Review of Government Quarantine Authority

The detention of a man infected with tuberculosis who may have exposed fellow passengers on commercial airliners to a particularly resistant form of the disease has generated new interest in the government’s power to quarantine and isolate persons who may pose a threat to public health.

A recent report (pdf) of the Congressional Research Service provides extensive legal, factual and historical background on the subject.

In a nutshell, “state and local governments have the primary authority to control the spread of dangerous diseases within their jurisdictions, and the federal government has authority to quarantine and impose other health measures to prevent the spread of diseases from foreign countries and between states,” the CRS report explains.

See “Federal and State Quarantine and Isolation Authority,” updated January 23, 2007.

and, relatedly, see “Quarantine and Isolation: Selected Legal Issues Relating to Employment” (pdf), updated February 28, 2007.

“The term ‘quarantine’ is derived from the Italian words quaranta giorni, which refer to the 40-day period during which certain ships arriving at the port of Venice during the Black Death plague outbreaks of the 14th century were obliged to sit at anchor before any persons or goods were allowed to go ashore,” the CRS notes.