RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Federal health officials may soon have strong, new powers to quarantine people in order to prevent or stop outbreaks of dangerous infectious diseases. The new powers are designed to help the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protect the nation against threats like Ebola and SARS. But this new authority raises fears about violating people's civil rights. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is in the studio to talk with me about this. Hi, Rob.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Oh, hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: The CDC has had this power - right? - before, the power to quarantine people for a long time.
STEIN: Yeah. Well, you know, Rachel, technically the CDC has had the power to quarantine people for decades, but the reality is that their powers have been pretty limited. Basically, they could only stop people from entering the country or crossing state lines and only for a very specific list of about a dozen diseases. And for the most part, the CDC didn't exercise the authorities it even had and generally would defer to state and local officials to take control in that kind of a situation.
MARTIN: OK. So is that not the case anymore? What has changed?
STEIN: Yeah, so what's changed is that the CDC has basically updated its quarantine regulations for the first time since, like, the 1940s and basically has changed the authorities in a lot of very significant ways. Now, the CDC, I should say, did not make anybody available to talk to me about this and is kind of downplaying it on their website. But I talked to a number of health law experts and bioethicists and doctors, and they said these changes are really significant and give the CDC broad new powers that it never had before.
For example, the CDC is no longer limited to just quarantining people when they come into the country or cross state lines. The CDC could under these rules swoop in anytime, anywhere in the United States and, you know, pull people off of trains or buses or subways if they feel the need to do that to stop an outbreak.
MARTIN: All right. So what does that mean in practice? What are the criteria the CDC uses to quarantine someone?
STEIN: Right. So under these new rules, they wouldn't necessarily be limited to a very specific list of diseases. They could detain someone just because they have symptoms that suggest they might be carrying a dangerous disease, symptoms that are pretty common, like a high fever, cramps or a headache.
MARTIN: Why? I mean, what's the rationale for these new broad powers?
STEIN: So most people I talked to said, look, the CDC needed to clarify how things would work if they needed to to stop an outbreak. And if you remember, during the Ebola outbreak, there was a lot of kind of chaos and confusion about exactly how someone could be and when they could be quarantined. And one big improvement people are saying about this is it does lay out specifically how people's civil rights could be protected if they were quarantined.
MARTIN: All right, but there are probably groups out there who are worried about civil rights and privacy protections in this.
STEIN: Right, and the concern is that the protections are in there, and that's good, but they don't go far enough. For example, one big concern is that the rules say somebody could be held for 72 hours before their case could get some kind of review. But the rules give the CDC itself several layers of review to determine whether they can continue to hold somebody. And people are saying, you know, that should be - some outside objective entity should be able to step in to make sure somebody isn't being held without good reason.
MARTIN: And is there any significance to this happening under the Trump administration?
STEIN: Well, obviously it does raise some additional concerns, especially from some of the things we've seen happen over the past week about the way the administration has dealt with immigrants and refugees, for example. And you also - you might remember during the Ebola outbreak, Trump put out a bunch of tweets saying that doctors and nurses who got sick in Africa shouldn't be allowed to come back into the country to get medical care. And Trump has described himself as kind of a germophobe. So there is a concern that if there ever was an outbreak, there might be an overreaction, and these new powers could be abused.
MARTIN: All right. So what happens next? When do they go into effect?
STEIN: They're being reviewed now as part of the Trump administration's broad review of new regulations, so the soonest they could go into effect would be the end of March.
MARTIN: Rob Stein, NPR health correspondent. Thanks, Rob.
STEIN: Oh, sure, nice to be here.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.