The 2009 Influenza A(H1N1) Outbreak: Selected Legal Issues

Publication Date: October 2010

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Health

Type: Report

Coverage: United States


On June 11, in response to the global spread of a new strain of influenza, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the level of influenza pandemic alert to phase 6, which indicates the start of an actual pandemic. This change reflected the spread of the new influenza A(H1N1) virus, not its severity. Although currently the pandemic is of moderate severity with the majority of patients experiencing mild symptoms and making a rapid and full recovery, this experience could change. This report provides a brief overview of selected legal issues including emergency measures, civil rights, liability issues, and employment issues.

There are a number of emergency measures which may help to contain or ameliorate an infectious disease outbreak. The Public Health Service Act, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the National Emergencies Act, and the Stafford Act contain authorities that allow the Secretary of Health and Human Services or the President to take certain actions during emergencies or disasters. While the primary authority for quarantine and isolation in the United States resides at the state level, the federal government has jurisdiction over interstate and border quarantine. The federal government also issues recommendations regarding such activities as school closures and vaccination programs. States and local governments have the authority to initiate emergency measures such as mandatory vaccination orders and certain nonpharmaceutical interventions such as school closures, which may lessen the spread of an infectious disease. The International Health Regulations adopted by the WHO in 2005 provide a framework for international cooperation against infectious disease threats.

The use of these emergency measures to contain the 2009 influenza pandemic may raise a classic civil rights issue: to what extent can an individual’s liberty be curtailed to advance the common good? The U.S. Constitution and federal civil rights laws provide for individual due process and equal protection rights as well as a right to privacy, but these rights are balanced against the needs of the community.

Liability issues may become particularly important during the 2009 influenza pandemic. The Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act limits liability with respect to the use of countermeasures for pandemic flu or other public health threats. A patchwork of federal and state laws generally protect volunteers, which may include volunteer health professionals (VHPs), under certain circumstances. Laws also provide liability protections specifically for VHPs. Questions relating to employment are among the most significant issues presented by an influenza pandemic, since, if individuals fear losing their employment or their wages, compliance with public health measures such as social distancing and isolation or quarantine may suffer. It would seem possible for a court to conclude that the isolation or quarantine of individuals during a pandemic serves the public good and that the termination of individuals who are isolated or quarantined violates public policy. Employees may also have some job protection under the Family and Medical Leave Act.