Skip to content

States have ‘immense’ powers to fight coronavirus

From detective work to messaging, state leaders are on the front lines of the outbreak

City employees work at an emergency outbreak center at Kirkland City Hall on March 1 in Kirkland, Wash., where officials are monitoring a coronavirus outbreak.
City employees work at an emergency outbreak center at Kirkland City Hall on March 1 in Kirkland, Wash., where officials are monitoring a coronavirus outbreak. (Jovelle Tamayo/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

By Michael Ollove and Alex Brown

SEATTLE — Local and state public health officials wield extraordinary powers in emergency situations such as the current coronavirus outbreak.

They can close schools and private businesses. They can restrict or shut down mass transit systems. They can cancel concerts, sporting events and political rallies. They can call up the National Guard. They can suspend medical licensing laws and protect doctors from liability claims.

And they can quarantine or isolate people who might infect others.

“The authority is immense, and it is extensive,” said James Hodge, law professor and director of the Center for Public Health Law and Policy at Arizona State University.

Every state and many cities have laws granting them special powers in emergencies, Hodge said. They may differ in the details, such as which public officials have authority in what circumstances.

Loading the player...

In Washington state — the U.S. epicenter of the outbreak — Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency last month and directed state agencies to use “all resources necessary” to respond to the outbreak. Other governors have followed suit.

A state of emergency allows officials to quickly secure and spend money, said Trudy Henson, public health program director at the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security. It cuts red tape, sometimes scrapping the requirement to use a competitive bidding process for government contracts. Inslee is asking the state legislature for $100 million from this year’s budget to confront the disease.

‘We are taking action’

Declarations of emergency also have an important public relations function.

“They can be a signal to the public that we are aware of this and we are taking action,” Henson said.

An emergency declaration gives government officials the authority to restrict or direct people’s movement, including isolating a person infected with a communicable disease or quarantining someone who appears healthy but was exposed to the disease.

“That’s what public health has done for literally hundreds of years,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, a lawyer and the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “In particular, it was done with [tuberculosis] in the United States.”

States can force people to obey public health restrictions, Shah said, but he hopes cooperation will be the norm.

Amy Kapczynski,​ ​a Yale Law School professor, said at a recent American Civil Liberties Union news conference that authorities should use the “least restrictive” methods of quarantine and isolation.

Health and legal experts assembled by the ACLU wrote an open letter to federal, state and local leaders saying that to encourage cooperation, they might have to take steps to “ensure that people are protected from job loss, economic hardship and undue burden.”

“If people are asked to avoid public transport or work, policymakers and employers should give them an explicit incentive to stay home, either with payments or by compensation for lost wages” as has occurred in some other countries, the letter said.

Under emergency decrees, governors and local officials also can redirect health care workers to where they are needed and organize hospitals to meet the demands of an outbreak.

For instance, they can decide which hospitals should have isolation wards. They can order or request hospitals to release patients with lesser health needs to make room for those infected with the virus. They can take properties to create emergency medical centers if hospital space runs out. And they can transfer equipment and supplies from one hospital to another, based on the needs of the moment.

In cases of shortages, governors can make requests for equipment and supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile, which keeps reserves.

Governors also can suspend the licensing that normally regulates a state’s medical practitioners, to bring in professional help from elsewhere. States often employ such practices in natural disasters.

The main function of local and state public health officials is tracking the disease. The federal government, in fact, relies on local and state health departments to do that sort of epidemiological detective work.

“In an outbreak situation, the public health response is effectuated at the state and local level,” said Maine’s Shah. “We are the ones responsible for organizing, testing patients, liaising with health care providers to ensure that patients are safely transported and isolated in hospitals, so they don’t infect others. And we’re the ones doing the epidemiological gumshoe work to see who else has been in contact.”

Insufficient public health spending

A lack of public health investment may hamper those efforts. Funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fell by ​10 percent over the past decade​, and President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget proposal calls for a ​further cut of 9 percent​.

While state public health budgets rose slightly from nearly $31 billion in 2014 to about $34.5 billion in 2018, median per capita expenditures fell from $84 per person in 2014 to $81 per person in 2019, according to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

The group estimates the states’ total public health workforce has fallen by 15 percent since 2010.

“The biggest problem we have is around readiness, driven by a lack of funding,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

Insufficient funding, he said, has left most states with significant public health vacancies, forcing them to move employees from other areas into infectious disease to address the outbreak.

“You end up leaving other areas — chronic diseases, maybe, or maternal health or HIV, uncovered,” he said.

States faced another hurdle in the coronavirus outbreak: the initial sidelining of their laboratories. State labs were at first dependent on the CDC to develop a test for COVID-19.

The first kits CDC sent to states were defective, creating an additional delay during which only the CDC was able to test for the disease. That prevented tracking of the disease as it spread, said Kelly Wroblewski, director of infectious disease programs at the Association of Public Health Laboratories.

Recognizing that supplies may not keep up with the infection, the Food and Drug Administration last month approved commercial and academic labs to develop and begin using their own tests, which the FDA will approve retroactively.

States can set their own criteria for who should be tested. State and local officials say the CDC’s initial criteria were too restrictive, possibly delaying early detection of some COVID-19 cases in the United States.

Spreading the message

One other crucial function of state and local public health authorities is providing clear, scientifically based information. While Trump administration messaging has been inconsistent, with some officials, including the president, at times minimizing the threat, state and local officials have communicated cautions and advice to the public.

American history illustrates the consequences of what can happen when local officials dismiss the threat of an infectious disease, said John Barry, who chronicled the 1918-19 Spanish flu epidemic in his book ​“The Great Influenza.”

While the U.S. was embroiled in World War I in 1918, a ship from Boston docked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The sailors who disembarked brought a deadly virus, eventually dubbed the Spanish flu, which infected half a million of Philadelphia’s nearly 2 million residents. It killed 16,000 of them.

The city’s public health director at the time, Wilmer Krusen, downplayed the danger, Barry said.

“No concern whatever is felt,” Krusen proclaimed.

Krusen rebuffed entreaties from doctors to cancel the Liberty Loan parade scheduled later that month. It became the largest parade in the city’s history. Two days later, Barry noted, flu cases spiked. Priests in horse-drawn carriages drove through neighborhoods to collect the dead.

“It’s a perfect example,” Barry said, “of what happens when local officials lie to the public.”

Editor’s note: Stateline is an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

This story originally appeared in Stateline on March 5.

Recent Stories

Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, first woman on the Supreme Court, dies at 93

Members want $26 billion for programs the Pentagon didn’t seek

Expelling bee — Congressional Hits and Misses

Appeals court rejects Trump push to dismiss Jan. 6 suits from lawmakers, police

Photos of the week ending December 1, 2023

House expels Rep. George Santos