The Network was recently contacted by a public health agency policy analyst who attended the webinar, Ebola and the Law: What You Need to Know, which covered emergency legal preparedness issues related to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The requestor asked for clarification on how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is enforcing the 21-day quarantine of ill travelers wishing to return to the United states.
While CDC is legally authorized to issue isolation and quarantine orders for persons traveling into the U.S. (or between U.S. states in some circumstances), such orders are generally issued by state and local health departments with CDC support and assistance, and the CDC has not exercised its own authority in the case of the West African Ebola outbreak.
In August, aid workers who were potentially exposed to the virus, but showed no symptoms of infection, returned to the U.S. from Liberia and were placed in quarantine in North Carolina. The quarantine was ordered by state and local health officials in North Carolina and was adhered to solely through the voluntary consent of the individuals. In the event that the individuals refuse to cooperate with quarantine orders, additional enforcement options would be available, including potential confinement in appropriate facilities. Placing a person under quarantine does not implicate him or her in any crime; however, breaking a state, local or federal quarantine order may be punishable by fine or imprisonment, as well as mandatory implementation of the original order.
CDC does not currently recommend quarantine for exposed individuals who do not have symptoms of Ebola. Current CDC guidance recommends self-monitoring for fever or other symptoms or conditional release with monitoring by a public health authority for 21 days after potential exposure. More information on CDC recommendations is available on the CDC website.
Ebola, a virus for which no specific approved treatment exists, is transmitted through bodily fluids or contact with contaminated objects. Symptoms range from sore throat and headaches to internal and external bleeding. Infection carries with it a high risk of death — in some cases as high as 90 percent.