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Legally Speaking


Issue: February, 2006
Author: Robin Sessions Cooley

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Quarantine Laws in Wyoming

Funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been provided to the Wyoming Department of Health, Public Health and Terrorism Preparedness Program to assess the range and limits of authority of federal, state and local governments in the event of a public health emergency. Of concern to both the CDC and the State are the coordination, activation and enforcement of Wyoming’s quarantine statutes.

According to Dr. Brent Sherard, M.D., M.P.H., the State Public Health Officer and the Director for the Department of Health, quarantine and isolation mandates are public health “tools” that were effectively utilized in the pre-antibiotic era to help eliminate the spread of contagious diseases. With the recent advent of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), the possible use of smallpox as a biological weapon, and now with pandemic influenza potentially on the horizon, these time honored public health “tools” may again play a pivotal role in the containment of epidemic diseases.

A clear understanding of the process and thoughtful consideration of the ramifications of quarantine and isolation procedures are essential in planning for possible disease outbreaks. However, understanding the process is sometimes difficult as Wyoming’s contagious disease and quarantine statutes are found in a variety of locations in Title 35 of the Wyoming Statutes and are conflicting at times. This article attempts to outline relevant Wyoming Statutes that set out the roles of various governmental agencies and officials in investigating and controlling infectious or communicable diseases in Wyoming to assist in a basic understanding of the process.

The department of health, through the state health officer, has the duty and responsibility to “investigate and control the causes of epidemic, endemic, communicable, occupational and other diseases and afflictions, and physical disabilities resulting therefrom, affecting the public health[.]” Mandatory reporting requirements assist in this endeavor. The state public health officer publishes a list of communicable diseases and conditions which require reporting by licensed physicians, laboratories and other health care providers. This mandatory reporting is “required by law” and as such, is an appropriate release of information under both state and federal law.

Quarantine and isolation assist in controlling and preventing the spread of disease. Isolation is used to prevent the spread of disease from individuals who are known to have an illness. Quarantine generally refers to the separation of individuals who may have been exposed to an illness but who are not yet sick.

The term “quarantine” in Wyoming statutes is broadly defined and would likely include either an isolation or quarantine event; the term “isolation” is not separately defined. The statute provides for physical separation and confinement for individuals who have been exposed to a “contagious or possibly contagious disease” but are not yet ill, and of those individuals who are “reasonably believed to be infected.”

In the event the department of health obtains information about an outbreak of an infectious or contagious disease which may endanger the public health, either the county or state health officer must investigate. Based on the results of that investigation, the state health officer has the authority to direct the county health officer to declare an infected area to be in quarantine and may modify or end a quarantine. The statutes also allow the state public health officer to declare a state-wide quarantine.

Should it become necessary to medically treat the disease to protect the public health, the governor must declare a public health emergency. When such an emergency is declared, the state health officer has the authority to prescribe pharmaceutical or therapeutic interventions “en masse.”

Procedural Requirements
Any person who has been quarantined may appeal to a district court for release from quarantine. The state health officer must be given seventy-two (72) hours notice prior to the hearing and bears the burden of proving the need for the quarantine. This requirement is somewhat at odds with the fact that the statute allows the county health officer to conduct the initial investigation upon which the decision to quarantine is based and, the county health officer ultimately declares the state of quarantine. In the event of a “bona fide scientific or medical uncertainty,” the court is required to “give deference to the professional judgment of the state health officer, unless the person quarantined proves by a preponderance of the evidence that the quarantine is not reasonably necessary to protect the public health.”

Penalties for Noncompliance
The department of health has authority to prescribe rules and regulations for the management and control of communicable diseases. Failure or refusal to obey these rules and regulations, or interfering with the enforcement of the rules and regulations, is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine, imprisonment or both. Should an individual escape or attempt to escape from quarantine, that person can be re-quarantined and faces a fine or imprisonment. Interestingly, one of the older statutes makes it a crime to “knowingly have or use” or “convey or cause to convey” items used by any person afflicted with a contagious or infectious disease that would tend to spread the disease. In fact, the act of simply doing something “necessarily tending to spread” a disease may be a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment or a fine.

In the event of an outbreak, Dr. Sherard notes that individual rights versus the good of the entire population will likely open up old wounds that many thought had healed years ago when smallpox was virtually eliminated from our society and the quarantine of large numbers of people was thought to be an antiquated exercise. These basic ideals will again pose great challenges for public health and law enforcement officials when implementing and enforcing Wyoming quarantine statutes. Knowledge of the process outlined in these statutes may help to ensure that both individual rights and the public’s health are protected.

Robin Sessions Cooley is a Deputy Attorney General in the Human Services Division of the Wyoming Attorney General’s office. She graduated from the University of Wyoming College of Law in 1992.

Copyright © 2006 – Wyoming State Bar