In a flu pandemic, what can the government do to you?
A report by the Centers for Disease Control, released Tuesday, raises concern about Washington’s potential response to the H1N1 virus.
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But these are clear attempts at preparing for the worst.Skip to next paragraph
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“There’s not going to be compulsory vaccination,” says Jennifer Nuzzo, an analyst at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “But what you may be picking up on is that the military does have a lot of healthcare professionals, so [the government] may be enlisting some of the extra hands that are out there.”
No kissing, please
Because the H1N1 flu has proven less deadly so far than initially feared, the Obama administration has actually ratcheted back immediate response plans.
For example: The administration is hinting that it will urge fewer school closings than took place during the spring outbreak. Colleges are being asked to formulate preparedness plans, but so far those include primarily voluntary dorm quarantines and suggestions for afflicted students to refrain from kissing – or at least to wear surgical masks when they do.
Compared with many other countries, “this administration has been pretty measured about wanting to balance the need to control a health threat with not wanting to interrupt society ... [with] heavy-handed responses,” says Ms. Nuzzo.
As to the fears about a WHO conspiracy, Nuzzo adds: “The WHO staff is smaller than the New York City Health Department, so its ability to impose worldwide martial law would be a miracle.”
Is Washington overreaching?
Yet some fears about the government potentially overstepping its bounds are justified, civil libertarians say.
Since 9/11, pandemic planning has taken a more authoritarian tone that harks back to the pre-vaccine days of forced quarantines during outbreaks, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report released in January 2008.
Pandemic flu plans adopted by the federal government and nearly every state and locality “rely heavily on a punitive approach and emphasize extreme measures such as quarantine and forced treatment,” the report says. “People, rather than the disease, become the enemy.”
Yet some pandemic experts predict that the police and military will more likely be used to protect clinics and hospitals against angry mobs demanding vaccination than to force Americans into quarantine against their will.
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