By Stephanie Rosendorf – The Ebola Virus Disease is a severe and oftentimes fatal illness in humans, which has already taken the lives of thousands of people in Africa during this year. The first human outbreaks occurred in Africa in 1976, with the most recent outbreak also occurring in Africa but spreading to other continents, as well. Transmission occurs through contact with bodily fluids from an infected person or contaminated objects from infected persons. Symptoms include severe weakness, aches, fever, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, and even rashes and difficulty swallowing. These symptoms typically appear 8-10 days after exposure to the virus, although in some cases it can take up to 21 days for symptoms to appear.
With the first death on American soil occurring just last week as well as news that a healthcare worker in Texas has now tested positive for the virus, there is an evolving debate among the public and policymakers as to whether, and to what extent, travel from certain African countries should be restricted. Politicians from both major parties have expressed support for restricting travel from Africa, but various top health officials warn that restricting travel would only cause the deadly disease to “proliferate overseas and remain a global threat.” Florida Democrat Alan Grayson, well known for his progressive ideology, has stated that he will propose legislation to ban travel from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea if the Obama administration refuses to implement such a policy. Further, Representative Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, has requested that large airports in Texas be added to the list of airports that have started screening all incoming passengers. Others, such as Wendy Parmet, director of the Program on Health Policy and Law at Northeastern University School of Law, believe that travel bans provide people with a false sense of security but that the only real solution is to contain the virus at its source.
Other than the wisdom of restricting travel from Africa, we must ask ourselves whether such restrictions are legal and who, if anybody, has the authority to set such restrictions. According to Greg Jarrett of Fox News, under Article II of the Constitution the President not only has the authority, but is “duty-bound to respond to threats and to conduct the country’s foreign affairs.” During times of crisis, the President has broad authority over matters related to health, safety, and national security. One could make the inference that stopping the spread of Ebola, a deadly disease, falls under the categories of health, safety, and security.
Further, under the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 201 et. seq., The Department of Health and Human Services has “statutory and regulatory responsibility for preventing the introduction, transmission, and spread of communicable disease from foreign countries into the United States.” The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is also responsible for “security in all modes of transportation” and thus would be responsible for protecting incoming communicable disease if we assume that such disease is a security issue.
Overall, it seems as though there is broad legal authority from both the Constitution and statutes to restrict incoming travel from other nation states and territories. However, the important question remains: How effective would such restrictions be? Is it already too late now that Ebola is in the United States? It seems that only time will tell.