What is a Public Health 'Emergency'?

Posted: 23 Oct 2014

See all articles by Rebecca Haffajee

Rebecca Haffajee

Harvard Medical School - Department of Population Medicine; Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute; University of Michigan at Ann Arbor - Department of Health Management and Policy

Wendy E. Parmet

Northeastern University - School of Law

Michelle M. Mello

Stanford Law School; Department of Medicine

Date Written: September 11, 2014

Abstract

This article examines the appropriate scope of public health emergency declarations. Using Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s declaration of the opioid-addiction crisis as a public health emergency, the paper explores the appropriate parameters of such declarations and the emergency powers that follow from them. We do not debate the public health significance of opioid addiction in the Commonwealth, nor the specific measures ordered pursuant to Patrick’s declaration. We do question using public health emergency powers beyond the traditional arenas of infectious disease outbreaks, natural disasters, and acts of bioterrorism into new territories, such as injuries and chronic disease.

State laws provide governors and their top health officers with considerable latitude in declaring public health emergencies. But the powers available upon such declarations are extraordinary and should be wielded with care. The article identifies three key criteria to guide the issuance of an emergency declaration: “the situation is exigent, the anticipated or potential harm is calamitous, and the harm cannot be avoided through ordinary procedures.” In the absence of these criteria, the invocation of such emergencies may raise heightened concerns — for instance, if ensuing orders involve serious infringements on individual and private business rights — and could result in a loss of public trust in health officials and legitimacy in public health laws.

Keywords: public health, emergency powers, quarantine

Suggested Citation

Haffajee, Rebecca and Parmet, Wendy E. and Mello, Michelle M., What is a Public Health 'Emergency'? (September 11, 2014). New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 371, No. 11, pp. 986-988 (2014); Northeastern University School of Law Research Paper No. 202-2014; Stanford Public Law Working Paper No. 2510436. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2510436

Rebecca Haffajee

Harvard Medical School - Department of Population Medicine ( email )

133 Brookline Avenue
6th Floor
Boston, MA 02215
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Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute

133 Brookline Avenue
6th Floor
Boston, MA 02215
United States

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor - Department of Health Management and Policy ( email )

109 Observatory
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2029
United States

Wendy E. Parmet (Contact Author)

Northeastern University - School of Law ( email )

416 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
United States
(617) 373-2019 (Phone)
(617) 373-5056 (Fax)

Michelle M. Mello

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States
650-725-3894 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://https://law.stanford.edu/directory/michelle-m-mello/

Department of Medicine ( email )

Center for Health Policy / PCOR
Encina Commons
Stanford, CA 94305
United States

HOME PAGE: http://https://profiles.stanford.edu/michelle-mello?tab=bio

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