Preparing for Emergencies: A Legal Perspective

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Midsection of male judge signing contract paper at desk

Whether it’s taking steps toward a healthier lifestyle, preventing diseases, or preparing for an emergency or natural disaster, public law is an important tool to promote and protect public health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Law Program (PHLP) develops legal tools and provides technical assistance to public health colleagues and policymakers to help keep their communities safer and healthier.

Emergency preparedness is one of the most important topics PHLP covers. Most emergency response systems are based on laws that regulate when and how state, tribal, local, territorial, and federal entities can engage in an emergency response. The legal nuances are often complicated and easy to miss. PHLP offers resources and training to empower state, tribal, local, and territorial communities to better understand, prepare, and respond to public health emergencies. Together, public health and public health law can protect people from harm and help communities better prepare for disasters.

For the past 16 years, PHLP has helped public health practitioners respond quickly—and with the right legal resources—in times of crisis. PHLP’s work can be divided into two main areas: PHLP’s research initiative and the program’s workforce development activities. Through its research initiative, PHLP conducts legal research using legal epidemiology research principles. PHLP’s research looks at various critical issues to interpret how the law plays a role in diseases and injuries affecting the entire country, and examines specific topics in state and local jurisdictions.

Gregory Sunshine presenting at a CDC TedMed talk
Gregory Sunshine, JD, a legal analyst at CDC, describes the role the agency plays in our public health and legal systems and explains how this affected state Ebola monitoring and movement protocols.

PHLP’s training helps health officials learn what they need to know to prepare for an emergency and what the law allows. In 2015, staff went on a legal preparedness “roadshow,” training more than 500 people in 11 different states in just a few short months. This training showed participants how to recognize legal issues that arise during public health emergencies, offered tools for planning and implementing effective law-based strategies during an emergency, and provided an opportunity to exercise their knowledge through a fictional response scenario.

PHLP also offers emergency response support for specific emergencies. During a public health emergency, such as the Ebola epidemic, PHLP helps partners use the law to stay ahead of quickly evolving situations. After the first case of Ebola was diagnosed in the United States on October 11, 2014, enhanced entry screening was implemented in five airports, which is allowed by law to protect Americans’ health. The enhanced entry screening was implemented to help identify and monitor travelers from countries with Ebola outbreaks who could have been exposed to the disease or who had signs or symptoms of Ebola.

Stakeholders were concerned that variations in how each state monitored and controlled the movement of travelers from countries with Ebola outbreaks could cause confusion, so PHLP staff published the State Ebola Screening and Monitoring Policies on its website so travelers could access them in one easy location. This information helped people who were considering working in West Africa understand what the requirements might be after they returned home. Similar to what was done during the Ebola outbreak, the program recently published an analysis of emergency declarations and orders related to the West Nile virus as part of CDC’s response to the 2016 Zika outbreak.

PHLP helps public health partners across America answer legal questions on many emergency preparedness and response topics. Through legal research, trainings, and publishing of the latest information, PHLP is always ready to help their partners understand how to use law to protect the health and safety of the public. People interested in learning more about PHLP can visit PHLP’s website. For regular updates on public health law topics, including legal preparedness, subscribe to CDC’s Public Health Law News.

Link to TedMed Video:


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3 comments on “Preparing for Emergencies: A Legal Perspective”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    What information is available to the public with regards to Polio Survivors from past Epidemics from the 1930’s,1940’sand 1950’s. My entire family my mother and father and all three young children including my sister and brother and myself during the 1955 polio outbreak near Children’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts were exposed to and infected with Polio. My father became paralyzed from the neck down after surviving 4 years in the army in Germany during World War 2, he was honorably discharged with a bronze star for bravery. He became paralyzed not from wartime injuries but from a polio outbreak in our neighborhood several years after marrying my mother (1949). I was born first during 1950; next my brother (1951) ; next my baby sister (1953).
    During 1955 ( prior to the vaccine getting introduced ) my sister (age 2) came down with bulbar polio ( which effects circulation and repiratory) with 107 degree temperature was packed in ice at Children’s Hospital in Boston.
    We were all there and my mother was informed that her husband (apxage 32)was paralyzed from the neck down and so also was her son age 4 paralyzed from the neck down. My dad and my brother also with the extremely high fevers.
    My mother(age 31) and myself (age5)both contracted the third form of polio without the higher fevers…We became the March of Dimes family and we were assisted by the agency for years to come.
    My sister and I both have severe cases of Post Polio Syndrome for decades now suffer severely with many complications and health disabilities.
    Our mother and father and brother have passed away years ago. My sister is still alive and suffers devastating after effects for many decades with the many after effects from her near death experience in the Iron Lung at age 2 and for myself I suffer from many many disabilities from this neuro muscular disease. This brings me to my question…
    Does the CDC track contagious diseases with regards to numbers of patients struck down once and then struck down again later in life with the after effects of the intial outbreak ( in this case Polio)??? We are told that we are not contagious at all many decades later… In my case I am 65 years of age so I contracted post polio symptoms in 2005 (50 years after first exposure).
    Please tell me what records are available by the CDC regarding polio patient(s) and please advise me how Hippa laws vs Freedom of information laws play a role (if any) in any statistical data regarding Polio in the United States.

    CDC does provide information on the prevalence of post-polio syndrome:
    After an interval of 15-40 years, 25%-40% of persons who contracted paralytic poliomyelitis in childhood experience new muscle pain and exacerbation of existing weakness, or develop new weakness or paralysis. This disease entity is referred to as post-polio syndrome. Factors that increase the risk of post-polio syndrome include increasing length of time since acute poliovirus infection, presence of permanent residual impairment after recovery from the acute illness, and female sex. The pathogenesis of post-polio syndrome is thought to involve the failure of oversized motor units created during the recovery process of paralytic poliomyelitis.

    Post-polio syndrome is not infectious, and people experiencing the syndrome do not shed poliovirus.

    There is a need to balance providing information about polio and other diseases with privacy laws to protect people’s health and medical information. CDC partners with Post-Polio Health International to provide additional information and support for people with post-polio syndrome and their families.

    For more information please contact:
    Post-Polio Health International
    4207 Lindell Boulevard #110
    St. Louis, MO 63108-2930

    To learn more about how to request additional information from a federal agency please visit the Freedom of Information Act website.

    I live in a community that relies heavily on tourism. Some rental reservations have been cancelled because a pregnant family member was advised not to travel to North Carolina due to the potential of contracting the Zika virus. This information was confidently provided because the physicians were using the mosquito range map updated by the CDC. A few rental companies were unclear on their legal rights when it came to retaining the security deposit for the rental house. PHLP’s website proved to be a valuable resource. The CDC link is now included on the Dare County Health Department’s website with a map of potential outbreak zones. On the flip side, pregnant NC residents that have traveled outside the US in certain areas can be vaccinated upon return but they to have the option to decline vaccination. The PHLP’s website include a great webinar and presentation that can be downloaded to help individuals make educated decisions about their travel and vaccinations. Thank you.

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Page last reviewed: March 18, 2016
Page last updated: March 18, 2016