By PAULA WADE
Scripps Howard News Service
January 22, 2002
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Tennessee's governor and health officials would have sweeping new emergency powers to quarantine and test people, destroy or commandeer private property, and conduct other measures under the proposed Tennessee Emergency Health Powers Act.
The bill is model legislation drafted by the Center for Law and the Public's Health at Georgetown University.
Its goal is to give state officials special powers to react to a severe health emergency and limit its casualties - the direct result of fears of bioterrorism and chemical warfare brought on by the attacks of Sept. 11.
"What we're trying to do is make sure that the governor and the health authorities have the power to do what they need to do to protect the public in the case of some type of an emergency, said state Rep. Kathryn Bowers, D-Memphis, a co-sponsor. "We hope we'd never have to use it, but we have to have some means to respond to something that is highly contagious."
The bill defines a health emergency and grants the governor and state health and safety authorities powers that can be used only during such a declared emergency. For a health emergency to be declared, there must be an imminent threat of illness due to bioterrorism, an appearance of a new or previously controlled infectious agent or biological toxin, a natural disaster or a chemical or nuclear attack or release.
The threat of illness would have to pose a likelihood of many deaths, many serious or long-term disabilities or widespread exposure resulting in serious harm to a large number of people.
"In some people's minds, there may be some infringements on people's personal freedoms or what they perceive as their civil rights, but what do we do? Do we just let a (health emergency) endanger people's lives?" Bowers said.
The bill requires the state to form a commission to draft a health emergency plan and coordinate with local officials, health agencies and federal agencies. It requires the reporting of conditions and illnesses, in both humans and animals, that might cause a public health emergency.
If the governor declares a public health emergency, the state's Department of Health could test, vaccinate, examine, treat, isolate and quarantine people. Isolated and quarantined people could petition a court for relief and have a hearing within 48 hours.
State officials also could commandeer resources, facilities and supplies, destroy or decontaminate items or premises and ration health care supplies in a shortage.