Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Homeland Security preps flu quarantine guidelines


The Department of Homeland Security is preparing to quarantine people with confirmed swine flu infections, according to a newly released memo obtained by CBS News.

From CBS:

[The memo] says: "The Department of Justice has established legal federal authorities pertaining to the implementation of a quarantine and enforcement. Under approval from HHS, the Surgeon General has the authority to issue quarantines."

McGaw appears to have been referring to the section of federal law that allows the Surgeon General to detain and quarantine Americans "reasonably believed to be infected" with a communicable disease. A Centers for Disease Control official said on Tuesday that swine flu deaths in the U.S. are likely.

Federal quarantine authority is limited to diseases listed in presidential executive orders; President Bush added "novel" forms of influenza with the potential to create pandemics inExecutive Order 13375. Anyone violating a quarantine order can be punished by a$250,000 fine and a one-year prison term.

A Homeland Security spokesman on Tuesday did not have an immediate response to followup questions about the memo, which said "DHS is consulting closely with the CDC to determine appropriate public health measures."

In 2005, the Bush administration prepared guidelines similar to what's currently being circulated by DHS.

In the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza (PDF link), it outlined "public health guidance" that includes barring people from social gatherings and travel.

The document also notes that all nations in the International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza have agreed to a "timely and sustained high-level global political leadership to combat avian and pandemic influenza." (p. 16)

As of this writing, there are no confirmed deaths linked directly to swine flu, though U.S. officials believe it only a matter of time.

In the mean-time, this is not something to get panicked over. Even the Centers for Disease Control hasstopped short of issuing travel restrictions and said that border closures -- the likes of which were enforced during the SARS outbreak -- are not necessary.

Finally, and this one's a little dose of reality, over 13,000 Americans have died just this year from the "regular" flu and complications thereof.

-- Stephen C. Webster