Quarantine? Who Has The Right?

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When a deadly disease may enter your community, everyone has an opinion about what to do about it. Can you sort through the issues to help your community deal with the potential deadly outbreak?


Large group of people in an auditorium for a town meeting
The town hall meeting. Image: http://www.public-domain-image.com/free-images/people/crowd/general-meeting

What a mess!  Members of city council, the mayor, the city manager, city attorneys, local doctors, and many people from the community are having a town hall meeting to discuss the possibility of quarantine for people returning from a missionary trip helping victims in Ebola-infected countries in Africa. As the county health officer, you have a critical role in providing the latest information on the infectious disease and the possible consequences of the epidemic occurring in multiple countries. The matter is even more complicated now that the disease has spread outside the countries originally affected and is in several locations far from Africa.

The situation is further confounded by the disease itself. Ebola is not a mild disease from which you easily recover. It is a devastating illness that is highly infectious and highly virulent. Victims infected with Ebola hemorrhagic disease bleed out all major body openings—including the eyes and mouth— and bleed internally as well.  Death rates are high; case fatality rates can be as high as 90%. Public fears are naturally heightened due to the gruesome disease effects.

So far, the meeting has been three hours of heated arguments. As soon as someone tries to make a point, a squabble breaks out.  No one can seem to agree on anything, but you’re hearing a lot of conflicting information flying around.

A sign reading Danger:Quarantine AreaYour job is to protect your community from threats to their health and to inform them of healthy life choices, but this matter is complicated. City attorneys are worried about the city being sued, local doctors are worried about having the resources to handle a potential outbreak, and the public is worried that a devastating infectious and fatal disease could be in their community. While some people want the strictest measures to prevent exposure to a deadly disease, others say that government officials do not have the right to quarantine people just because they may be contagious.

The mayor finally proposes that more information is needed.  He suggests that you, as county health officer, present the relevant facts at the next meeting and have a plan that will address all the concerns that were discussed. He schedules another meeting in two days!

You decide to form a committee at your county health office to help consider all the pertinent facts.  This will be a great help in answering all the questions from the various interest groups and the general public at the town hall meeting. You and your co-workers on the committee will assemble the information and will also be able to make recommendations concerning quarantine or isolation.

Your Tasks:

  • Find out about the health risks associated with Ebola hemorrhagic disease.

Research the epidemiology of the disease, including the pathogen, incubation period,                        symptoms, treatment, and disease transmission.

  • What policies from governmental agencies handle isolation and  quarantine issues?

What policies do you have to follow, if any?  How much is in your control at the state or                     local level?

  • Your committee must propose a policy and protocol that will guide your community health services regarding people coming into your community who have been exposed to the Ebola virus. Members on the committee may have different positions or opinions about the policy, but you must come to a consensus that you can present at the next meeting.
  • Be prepared to present your findings and recommendations at the town hall meeting and support them with scientific information.
  • Be prepared to make amendments to your plan if possible when suggestions are made. You need to have a plan in place for your community. The assembled townspeople will vote on the plans presented.

 Guiding Questions:

  1. What do the interested parties at the town hall meeting need to know about Ebola?

What are the symptoms? incubation period? type of pathogen? treatment? containment procedures? fatality rates?

  1. What options are available to prevent the possible spread of disease through the community if one of the health volunteers returning to your community is infected with Ebola?
  2. What are the pros and cons of voluntary or mandatory quarantine or isolation?
  3. What is your recommendation for this community situation?

Be prepared to defend your committee’s position and answer questions from each interest group at the town meeting.