Pan Flu and Civil Rights

Public health officials have long understood the potential dangers of a new flu virus and have for several years been advocating for a bill (House 108 in this session) that would strengthen our readiness for this emergency.  This is a bill that I support and it takes on greater urgency given the emergence of swine flu.

Recently, I’ve received a number of identical emails from constituents that do not specifically mention this bill but generally oppose mandatory health treatments and vaccinations related to the flu.  In August, I held a meeting with one of these constituents and Donna Moultrup, Belmont’s health officer, to discuss the concerns.  It was a useful meeting and clarified my understanding of the legislation and the issues.

Here is a summary of my further informed perspective.

I understand the risks involved in some health care procedures and generally believe that health procedures should be voluntary.  House 108 recognizes this principle and specifically provides that no one unwilling should be required to be treated or vaccinated.

Under existing law health officers already have the power to isolate or quarantine persons who have been exposed or are infected as necessary to protect the public (a necessity which becomes greater if people are unvaccinated or refuse treatment).  The bill clarifies these powers and also specifically provides that “isolation and quarantine orders must utilize the least restrictive means necessary to prevent a serious danger to public health”.   In practice, in a world of finite resources, the most likely public health measures to interrupt transmission will include cancellation of public events, the closing of some schools or work places and more rarely, the confinement of infected persons to their homes.

I think House 108 strikes a responsible balance between the need to control infection and the rights of individuals to self-determination, but as the legislation moves forward I’ll keep an ear open for ways in which it can be improved.

Other important benefits of House 108 include:

  • A definition of mobilization procedures in the case of a pandemic
  • Liability protection for health care providers and volunteers who assist in vaccination or treatment
  • Uninsurance elibility for quarantined persons
  • A moratorium on insurance collection paperwork, to streamline the provision of care
  • Reporting requirements for disease control purposes.

These are important measures that will strengthen our response to public health emergencies.

The latest version of the bill, which is likely to be acted on by the House tomorrow is House 4271. Under 4271, the authority to enforce any quarantine order resides with the Superior Court, effectively assuring judicial review of any unreasonable order. Here is a link to the official summary of the bill.

(Note: This post was originally published on August 8, but republished with the updated information regarding the expected House action.)

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

2 replies on “Pan Flu and Civil Rights”

  1. I wonder if you could comment on what happens if quarantine is required and people live alone. Some people who live alone do not have access to others who can help. How do they get food and anything else that they may need to survive during the quarantine period?

    1. Good question. Actual house confinement would be exceedingly rare in practice and is only imaginable in the context of a formally organized effort including some kind of support. The bill is really designed to facilitate the participation of a broad group of volunteers to respond comprehensively in a way to helps people.

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