Quarantines for Coronavirus: Not in My Backyard

Kathleen Doheny

February 27, 2020

As coronavirus hot spots erupt in other parts of the world, some U.S. cities are fighting against having quarantined people in their neighborhoods.

In the past week, the city of Costa Mesa in Southern California got a temporary restraining order to stop the relocation of potential coronavirus patients from Travis Air Force Base to a former developmental center in the city. On Monday, a federal judge extended the order for another week. City officials said they need an adequate survey and analysis of the property and other information to ensure the safety of residents.

Alabama was being considered as another quarantine site, according to a state Department of Public Health news release on Sunday. But later that day, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) tweeted: "I just got off the phone with the President. He told me that his administration will not be sending any victims of the Coronavirus from the Diamond Princess cruise ship to Anniston, Alabama. Thank you, @POTUS, for working with us to ensure the safety of all Alabamians."

Naval Base Ventura County near Point Mugu, CA, about 60 miles from Los Angeles International Airport, was designated as a quarantine center. Officials held an information session Monday evening for people living and working on the base after they raised concerns on social media about the quarantine center there.

After the hour-and-a-half session, "people were relieved," says Melinda Larson, a public affairs officer at the base. Just one quarantined traveler is there and has not shown symptoms, she says.

The federal government has the authority to isolate and quarantine people under the Public Health Service Act. The act allows the secretary of Health and Human Services to take necessary measures to prevent the entry and spread of communicable diseases, both from foreign countries and between states. The CDC has the authority to carry out the day-to-day functions of the quarantine. This is different from isolation, where people diagnosed as sick are separated from the healthy; quarantine separates and restricts movement of people exposed to a contagious disease to see if they get sick.

As of Feb. 24, COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has infected more than 79,000 people around the world, according to the World Health Organization, and more than 2,600 have died. In the U.S., the CDC has confirmed 12 travel-related cases and 2 cases of person-to-person spread, with 426 people tested; 40 cases are reported among those repatriated to the U.S., including those from China and from the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined in Japan.

On its website, the CDC contends that for the general U.S. public, who are unlikely to be exposed, the immediate health risk of getting coronavirus is low. On Tuesday, however, CDC officials said everyone should prepare for the coronavirus to spread and said it's likely to become more common in the U.S.

"We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad," Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters on Tuesday.

Infectious Disease Doctor: Concerns "Not Valid"

The concerns about coronavirus patients being quarantined in one's community ''are not valid at all," says Amesh Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, MD, and a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. "It's not rational."

The vast majority of cases are mild, he says, and he believes people suspected of having the virus could be released and self-monitor for symptoms.

But knowing the statistics and facts about an illness and our perception of risk are two different things, says Paul Slovic, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and a veteran researcher on risk assessment.

"We judge risk not by statistics but by our feelings," he says. "And if the information we get is scary, it ramps up our feelings. We see [in media reports] the death toll rising, but we don't see the number of people who have mild cases and are recovering. The information is skewed towards the scary part — people in masks are being treated by medical people in hazmat suits. It's not surprising that people get worried."

The worry is likely to grow, he says, as people see the impact on the economy, such as the stock market plummet, and travel advisories.

The information is skewed towards the scary part — people in masks are being treated by medical people in hazmat suits. It's not surprising that people get worried.    Paul Slovic, PhD

To worry less, he says, people have to be confident that public health experts are knowledgeable enough to control the risk. And experts still lack information about the virus, he says.

When people ask themselves to what extent they can control their risk of getting the disease, that lack of information translates to a lack of control, Slovic says.

"We know certain hot buttons ramp up people's perception of risk," he says. "One of the key elements is a sense of control. The fact that it can be spread kind of invisibly through the air undercuts your sense of control."

The CDC list of quarantine stations is here.


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