By JOSH GERSTEIN
The Obama administration is quietly dusting off an effort to impose new federal quarantine regulations, which were vigorously resisted by civil liberties organizations and the airline industry when the rules were first proposed by the Bush administration nearly four years ago.
White House officials aren’t saying what their rules might ultimately require. But the previous administration proposed giving the federal government the authority to order a “provisional quarantine” of three business days — or up to six calendar days — for those suspected of having swine flu or other illnesses listed in a presidential executive order.
The Bush-era proposal would also have required airlines and cruise lines to store more information about domestic and international passengers, such as e-mail addresses, traveling companions and return flight information. The information would be subject to review by federal officials in a health emergency, though it would be voluntary for passengers to provide the data.
Opponents of the Bush administration’s efforts to enforce the new guidelines insist that they still are a mistake. “It’s not really going to help,” said Wendy Mariner, a professor of law and public health at Boston University. “The proposals to limit liberty represent a dangerous precedent to constitutional theory, particularly when there’s almost no evidence it will matter. … It wouldn’t surprise me if they try to sneak this past in August, when people are away.”
The White House’s Office of Management and Budget has set a September target date to complete the first major overhaul of the quarantine regulations in about three decades. That would have at least some of the rules in place if swine flu returns with a vengeance later this year, though officials are reluctant to make that link publicly.
“It’s important to public health to move forward with the regulations,” said Christine Pearson, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We need to update our quarantine regulations, and this final rule is an important step.”
Pearson said CDC had made “changes where appropriate” to the 2005 proposals, but she did not specify those adjustments.
An OMB spokesman, Tom Gavin, confirmed the rules submitted by the CDC in June were in “an interagency review process.”
Civil liberties groups and some public health experts question the value of the effort and not just on privacy grounds — they also contend that mandatory quarantine is unlikely to be an effective tool to contain swine flu or other diseases in the modern era.
“It doesn’t surprise me that when swine flu or any other epidemic is featured prominently in the news, we see a return to quarantine and other public health regulations,” said Christopher Calabrese of the American Civil Liberties Union, which sharply criticized the Bush-era proposal as too heavy-handed. “The enemy here isn’t the American people or sick people. It’s an illness. … Police officers with guns cannot make people obey a quarantine. In order for this to work, it has to be collaborative. They have to trust the government.”
Thus far, the Obama administration has gotten high marks from quarantine critics, particularly for rejecting suggestions that the U.S. close its border with Mexico during the initial swine flu outbreak. “The current administration quite rightfully resisted those calls,” Jennifer Nuzzo of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Biosecurity said.
A report in The Washington Post on Tuesday signaled that the administration may lessen some of the more stringent measures recommended for swine flu earlier this year, such as school closures. Analysts said the administration may want to hold new quarantine powers in reserve, for unforeseen situations or for diseases other than the flu.
POLITICO spoke with about a half-dozen health policy experts and travel industry representatives who submitted comments about the rules the Bush administration proposed in 2005. None of those interviewed had heard that the Obama administration was in the process of reviving the plan, though some hailed the move.
“This is great news,” said Paula Steib of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, which generally supported the 2005 proposals.