U.S. citizens who refuse to undergo the new screenings for Ebola at five major American airports could find themselves held in quarantine for up to three weeks, officials told Yahoo News on Thursday. Non-citizens who refuse the screenings could be quarantined or turned away from U.S. soil by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The Obama Administration announced on Wednesday that it would soon require passengers from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone — the countries at the epicenter of the deadly outbreak in West Africa — to answer questions about their potential exposure to the illness and to have their temperature taken upon arrival.
Officials unveiled the new rules hours after the only patient thus far diagnosed with Ebola on U.S. soil, Thomas Eric Duncan, died of the illness. Neighbors said he helped a pregnant woman in Liberia get to a hospital, where she was turned away from a crowded Ebola treatment ward. Liberian government officials said they planned to prosecute him for lying on health forms by denying any contact with an Ebola patient.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) may “isolate, quarantine, or issue a conditional release order to any arriving person who is reasonably believed to be infected with or exposed to Ebola,” CDC Public Affairs Director Barbara Reynolds told Yahoo News in an email. “Refusal to be screened or to respond to public health questions would be factors to be considered in formulating a reasonable belief as to whether the individual may be infected with or exposed to Ebola.”
A government official, who requested anonymity to describe the process candidly, said CDC would likely quarantine someone until they agreed to answer questions about their potential exposure to Ebola and have their temperature taken. Failing that, the authorities would consider holding the individual 21 days from their most recent plausible date of exposure to the disease. That’s how long the deadly virus can take to incubate. While the five airports will have special quarantine areas, the official would not say whether that is where recalcitrant citizens would be held.
Reynolds declined to confirm those details but underlined that “our intent is to be measured and protect the public’s health at the same time.”
“CDC has Quarantine Public Health Officers responding almost daily to potential public health threats in airports and are trained to help a traveler to understand what is being done and why every step of the way,” she said.
The CDC asserts the legal authority to take such measures under section 361 of the Public Health Service Act.
The law permits the federal government to take steps “necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the States or possessions, or from one State or possession into any other State or possession.”
It also allows the government to detain individuals either infected or “reasonably believed” to be infected “for such time and in such manner as may be reasonably necessary.”
(It also empowers the government to carry out “inspection, fumigation, disinfection, sanitation, pest extermination, destruction of animals or articles found to be so infected or contaminated as to be sources of dangerous infection to human beings.”)
“CDC has delegated authority to apprehend, detain, examine, and conditionally release individuals with certain communicable diseases (including Ebola) that are specified in an executive order of the president,” said Reynolds.
Ebola was designated as such under an executive order that then-President George W. Bush signed on April 4, 2003.
On a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, CDC Director Thomas Frieden hinted at the potential downside of refusing to undergo the screening.
“There are legal authorities,” Frieden said. “In public health, most fundamentally there's a right to protect the public. And we can do that by isolating individuals who may be infectious and may be a risk to the public.”
On the same call, Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said his agency has “the authority to take measures with respect to U.S. citizens as well as non-citizens to ensure that the public safety or security is not threatened.”
“That is in the public health arena just as it is in the national security arena,” Mayorkas said.