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State quarantine laws to protect public health carry ‘real power’

With new confirmed cases of coronavirus reported every day in Washington state, and health officials now recommending the avoidance of large gatherings, can the government order us into quarantine?

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KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross asked former Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna about the power of state or federal governments and the CDC in these situations.

“In my research, it really stuck me that real power lies with state governments because state governments and local governments have the primary authority to protect public health,” McKenna said.

The law grants state government, and by extension, local health officers, the ability to take any steps necessary to prevent the spread of diseases, according to McKenna.

“The quarantine laws that I’ve been researching at the state level are pretty sweeping, and I think that public gatherings could be prohibited of a certain size or any size if the state government decides that’s necessary,” McKenna said.

This means the government could stop conventions, theatrical performances, and other large events.

Quarantine, McKenna defined, is the limitation of people’s movements when they’ve been exposed, where isolation is when someone has been diagnosed as being ill and may have additional restrictions placed on them to keep them isolated from others.

The decision to quarantine or cancel events should be based on objective data, McKenna said. Past cases have shown that when used for discriminatory purposes or inappropriate reasons, quarantines could be struck down, but if it’s legitimate and based on information, it will be upheld.

“If they made the decision in good faith and they can provide evidence [that supports] their reasoning, it’ll be upheld in both terms of quarantine and isolation,” he said.

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Ross recognized that the shoppers buying out toilet paper and frozen foods may have good reason, as an imposed quarantine could force us all to stay home and avoid crowded stores.

“People are worried,” McKenna said. “And we’re seeing that effect we see when there’s an emergency that people stock up.”

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