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New Coronavirus And Where The Law And Public Health Intersect06:10
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Passengers wearing face masks look out from their cabin on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in quarantine due to fears of COVID-19. (Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)
Passengers wearing face masks look out from their cabin on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in quarantine due to fears of COVID-19. (Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)

The novel coronavirus outbreak is raising questions about how governments handle quarantines.

A Chinese man who tested positive was charged Friday in Singapore along with his wife. The pair are accused of giving false information to the government about where they had traveled. Another two people in Hong Kong were charged last week for violating a quarantine.

The U.S. government can quarantine as “long as there's a reasonable basis to believe that it will do some good,” says Scott Burris, professor and director at Temple University’s Center for Public Health Law Research.

Burris says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has the power to decide when to quarantine people coming from outside of the country or traveling between states.

"Public health is primarily centered at the state and local level,” he says. “The CDC has authority at the border, and the CDC has authority to try to stop interstate transit."

It’s unlikely that the U.S. government would take a drastic measure like China has done in locking down cities, he says, because it would undermine long-term public trust.

Though the U.S. has the power to take drastic measures to close down entire cities, it would be a costly mistake, he says.

"Sure they can do it, if it's necessary, but where courts step in and have always stepped in," he said, "is when you have something that's driven by politics or public fear that isn't going to do any good."

Despite China shutting down a lot of places and limiting certain activities, officials did not succeed in stopping the spread of coronavirus to other places.

"When you start to see the kinds of disruptions and harm it would cause [to shut down part of the U.S.], courts might step in,” he says. “Remember, if you're not shipping food, if you're not shipping parts for manufacturing, then you start to see the economy grind to a halt and that's dangerous to health too.”


Jill Ryan produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Ryan also adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on February 28, 2020.

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Jill Ryan Senior Associate Producer, Here & Now
Jill Ryan is a producer for NPR's Here & Now.

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Peter O'Dowd Twitter Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.

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