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COVID-19Mechanisms for Advancing Public Health

A Growing Body of Evidence can Help Make the Case for Public Health Laws to Mitigate the Impacts of COVID-19

January 27, 2022


It’s a cornerstone of public health law that laws created and implemented to protect the public’s health should be grounded in evidence and expertise. That principle has not been honored consistently during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, a growing body of evidence demonstrates how certain public health interventions backed by law have been associated with improved health outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic. As early as the spring and summer of 2020, a published report assessed some of the first community mitigation measures instituted to attempt to address COVID-19 in the United States, and a much-cited study compared COVID case rates in states with orders requiring members of the general public or certain employees to wear masks with states that had no masking requirements. Now, with the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus racing through the U.S. in the opening weeks of 2022 and legislatures in many states beginning their 2022 sessions, many public health officials and policy-makers are hungry for up-to-date analysis as public health knowledge and policy implementation have evolved.

Public health practitioners and attorneys need to know how to find, interpret, and talk about the latest evidence, including legal epidemiology. Legal epidemiology encompasses more than evidence about the effectiveness of face masks, vaccinations, restrictions on gatherings, and related measures in slowing the spread of infectious disease. It is rigorous, scientific analysis of the effectiveness of public health measures when required or encouraged by law. It also encompasses assessments of the impact of legal measures to address the social and economic effects of the pandemic, including both how law can exacerbate racial disparities and how law can provide support for compliance with related public health interventions and increase equity. By carefully crafting questions about key aspects of laws and policies and collecting and coding the answers across state or local jurisdictions, legal epidemiology can enable more nuanced comparisons of legal approaches and their associated health outcomes. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, legal epidemiology can also contribute to powerful messages about public health interventions such as school mask mandates and prohibitions of on-site dining in restaurants.

Those seeking publicly available legal datasets and surveys related to COVID-19 may find the following sources helpful:

Legal Datasets and Surveys

There isn’t space here to highlight every relevant assessment of legal responses to COVID-19, but online repositories where relevant research and analysis may be found include the following:

Legal Epidemiology and Public Health Evidence

Just as no single public health intervention has proven to be a silver bullet against COVID-19, evidence of improved outcomes associated with certain public health legal interventions is not likely to carry the day by itself. But funding and conducting more legal epidemiological research as part of an overall research agenda and incorporating the findings into policy discussions and public health communications should be one piece of the puzzle.

This post was developed by Jill Krueger, J.D., Region Director, Network for Public Health Law – Northern Region Office.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document do not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not represent the views of (and should not be attributed to) RWJF.