Massachusetts pandemic bill nears passage

| 11/3/2009

The Massachusetts House has overwhelmingly approved an effort giving public health officials the power to isolate individuals and order quarantines to contain the outbreak of serious contagious diseases.

The bill – S2028 – is designed to protect public health in case of a variety of possible emergencies, including natural disasters, chemical spills, bioterrorist attacks and infectious diseases. The H1N1 virus, or swine flu, is covered under infectious diseases.

House lawmakers voted 114-36 to advance the bill clarifying the authority of government and the rights of citizens in the case of a public health crisis. A House-Senate conference committee has been appointed to work out differences in the bill approved by the chambers.

The current version doesn’t include Senate-approved provisions to place restrictions on the right to public assembly and allow the arrest of individuals without warrant.

Forced vaccinations would be prohibited, although health officials would have the ability to quarantine people who are unwilling to be vaccinated during extraordinary health emergencies.

Supporters say the provision is needed to protect public safety against irresponsible actions by anyone who has the flu.

Anyone subject to quarantine would have the right to appeal to a Superior Court judge. Employers also would be forbidden to fire workers who had been placed under quarantine.

In addition, once an emergency has been declared, the commissioner of public health would have authority to evacuate and decontaminate public buildings.

Critics say some provisions in the bill infringe on individual rights. Others are concerned that fear about the policy could make people less likely to seek medical attention and, as a result, more likely to risk their own health and the health of others.

But Sen. Richard Moore, D-Uxbridge, said in a statement there is an expectation “that our government will take steps to protect us and our loved ones from the spread of deadly viruses or the consequences of natural disasters, even if protecting all of us might temporarily limit our individual freedoms.”

To view other legislative activities of interest for Massachusetts in 2009, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor

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