State House considers new quarantine powers

by Jessica Thompson

The state will have the power to forcefully quarantine citizens and pick who receives vaccines during public health emergencies if one state legislator has his way.

Despite concern the bill could threaten civil liberties, Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, announced legislation Monday to expand state government’s powers in the event of a bioterrorist attack, epidemic or outbreak of a highly infectious agent.

“This is controversial … It’s an interplay between civil rights and public safety,” said Huntley, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University’s Duluth campus.

If passed, the Minnesota Emergency Health Powers Act would grant the governor power to declare a public health emergency under extreme circumstances.

During the state of emergency, the commissioner of health could use force to quarantine infected Minnesotans. Citizens opposed to the quarantine could request a judicial appeal but would not receive a trial until after the quarantine period.

The commissioner would also determine who receives vaccines during an emergency and could force certain health care facilities to house the quarantined people.

John Wodele, Gov. Jesse Ventura’s spokesman, said Ventura expects to review several bills combating bioterrorism but has not yet endorsed any specific legislation.

“I expect there will be a fair amount of proposed legislation allowing the executive branch to act in cases of emergency without the constraints of law,” Wodele said.

Huntley said in the past, citizens were often quarantined to prevent the spread of measles, smallpox and other communicable diseases. He said most quarantine laws were removed as communicable disease epidemics became less of a threat.

“It’s clear we could be subject to bioterrorist activities and this is an attempt to have the state prepared Ö our system is not adequate to handle an outbreak,” said Huntley.

Huntley said his bill “is based in fact, not fear.”

But in their testimony before a House joint committee, state officials said many citizens ñ bombarded with media reports of anthrax – are reacting with unnecessary hysteria.

“If we look at this as psychological warfare, I’d have to say (the terrorists) are getting an ‘A’ Ö we have people on the verge of panic and sectors of the government immobilized, and it’s all designed to break our will,” said state epidemiologist Harry Hull.

He said of the thousands exposed to anthrax in past weeks, only 17 were infected.

Hull was one of the leaders from the departments of Health, Public Safety and Military Affairs who testified before the joint meeting of the House Health and Human Services and Crime Prevention committees Monday.

State officials urged citizens not to panic and said state agencies are monitoring everything from drinking water to airplanes.

“In Minnesota we are way ahead when it comes to planning for terrorist attacks. We really are viewed nationally as leaders,” said Department of Public Safety Commissioner Charlie Weaver. “I am confident that any response to terrorism Ö will be swift, coordinated and effective.”

Wodele said federal officials have complimented Minnesota’s security measures since Sept. 11, but he said more work lies ahead.

“We can always do other things, and legislation like Huntley’s is one example,” Wodele said. “You can never be too prepared.”

Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm could not be reached for comment. But at the hearing, Malcolm said Minnesota has “one of the strongest public health systems in the country.”

State officials are working with legislators to draft bills preparing for bioterrorism. Debate will begin at the start of the 2002 legislative session.


Jessica Thompson welcomes comments at [email protected]