Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2016


Dealing with catastrophic outbreaks of communicable disease will likely be one of the greatest challenges facing state and federal governments in the United States in the twenty-first century. In the last fifteen years, policymakers have become increasingly sensitive to the prospect of bioterrorism acts involving contagious diseases and the threat of rapid international transmission of diseases ranging from influenza to Ebola. The danger to public health posed by disease outbreak—and the danger to social order that would follow a disease outbreak—make it clear that any risk of a rapidly spreading, communicable disease would have to be met with swift and decisive measures by officials at every level of government. The use of isolation and quarantine would be among the most powerful instruments government officials would have to control the spread of disease and protect the public.

This Article examines the existing local, state, and federal law that authorizes quarantines and isolations and considers these laws in the context of public health policy and recent events. This Article also focuses on two recent cases involving the exercise of quarantine authority to illustrate the problems with existing law. Finally, this Article considers proposals for quarantine and isolation law reform at the state level and evaluates the ability of these proposals to solve the problems with existing law. This Article concludes that the most effective reform measure is to give federal public health agencies primary jurisdiction over the control of the diseases within their authority, with the power to delegate disease control tasks to state agencies.