Posted 4/1/2010 8:53 PM By Alison Young, USA TODAY
The Obama administration has quietly scrapped plans to enact sweeping new federal quarantine regulations that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention touted four years ago as critical to protecting Americans from dangerous diseases spread by travelers.
The regulations, proposed in 2005 during the Bush administration amid fears of avian flu, would have given the federal government additional powers to detain sick airline passengers and those exposed to certain diseases. They also would have expanded requirements for airlines to report ill passengers to the CDC and mandated that airlines collect and maintain contact information for fliers in case they later needed to be traced as part of an investigation into an outbreak.
Airline and civil liberties groups, which had opposed the rules, praised their withdrawal.
The Air Transport Association had decried them as imposing “unprecedented” regulations on airlines at costs they couldn’t afford. “We think that the CDC was right to withdraw the proposed rule,” association spokeswoman Elizabeth Merida said Thursday.
The American Civil Liberties Union had objected to potential passenger privacy rights violations and the proposal’s “provisional quarantine” rule. That rule would have allowed the CDC to detain people involuntarily for three business days if the agency believed they had certain diseases: pandemic flu, infectious tuberculosis, plague, cholera, SARS, smallpox, yellow fever, diphtheria or viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola.
“The fact that they’re backing away from this very coercive style of quarantine is good news,” said ACLU legislative counsel Christopher Calabrese, who was unaware the proposed rules had been withdrawn.
CDC officials had stressed the rules would only be used in rare circumstances when someone posed a threat and refused to cooperate. The new rules, they noted at the time, added legal protections and appeals for those subject to quarantines.
CDC spokeswoman Christine Pearson said in a statement Thursday that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC’s parent agency, withdrew the proposed regulations after discussion across the government made it clear that “further revision and reconsideration is necessary to update the regulations.”
HHS and the CDC are crafting new regulations that will incorporate public health lessons learned since 2005, Pearson said in the statement. She did not elaborate and referred questions to HHS. HHS spokeswoman Vicki Rivas-Vazquez said late Thursday the department had no further comment.
Last June, after the H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic emerged, the White House Office of Management and Budget received the final rules for review, records show. HHS withdrew the proposed regulations Jan. 20 — after more than four years of refining them and reviewing public comments.
Jennifer Nuzzo, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Center for Biosecurity, said the rapid worldwide spread of swine flu showed flaws in the proposed regulations’ premise.
“They probably learned during H1N1 that this hope of preventing diseases from entering the country by stationing people at airports is unrealistic,” she said.
In 2007, after an Atlanta man with drug-resistant tuberculosis drew international attention to the potential risks posed by infected air travelers, CDC Director Julie Gerberding testified before Congress that the proposed regulations would improve the agency’s ability to identify exposed passengers quickly. Gerberding, now president of Merck Vaccines, was unavailable for comment Thursday.
Even in the Bush administration, some were skeptical of the CDC’s 2005 proposal, said Stewart Baker, assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009. “There were a lot of questions about how plausible it was to treat airports as a place where you could stop and inspect and quarantine people,” Baker said Thursday.