Is it Legal to Involuntarily Quarantine People Exposed to Ebola?


By: Kevin R. Stone

Recently, a nurse who was exposed to Ebola in West Africa was involuntarily quarantined in a New Jersey hospital. She was then released back to her home in Maine. Although she tested negative for Ebola and displays no symptoms, Maine officials want her to remain quarantined in her home until the 21-day incubation period has passed. Similarly, in Georgia, people who have had contact with an Ebola patient are required to undergo quarantine, even if they show no symptoms. Although quarantine of people exposed to Ebola may provide relief to millions of Americans who are fearful of an unstoppable outbreak, it raises concerns of whether American citizens—especially those who are asymptomatic—can be involuntarily deprived of their liberty.

The federal government, through the CDC, has broad statutory authority to quarantine persons suspected of carrying communicable diseases if they travel inter-state or arrive in the United State from abroad. Likewise, every state has the power to protect the health, safety, and welfare of people within its borders. For example, in Georgia, the government has the authority to isolate persons with communicable diseases likely to endanger the health of others. It may require quarantine of persons who are simply exposed to or suspected of being infected with infectious disease until they are found to be free of the disease.

These laws provide governments with broad discretion to impose involuntary quarantines. However, quarantined individuals are not left without a remedy. They may, in Georgia for example, challenge the quarantine order before a judge who may either uphold or suspend the order. Either party may appeal the order to the Georgia Supreme Court. This process illustrates the delicate balance between the government’s interest in protecting its citizens from deadly disease and individuals’ interest in preserving their rights.