You are here

Texas bill grants officials greater authority to enforce quarantines

Austin American Statesman
February 12, 2015

State officials would have greater authority to control disease outbreaks, including isolating Texans at risk of spreading Ebola or other infectious diseases, under proposed legislation that has drawn bipartisan support.

The bill, unveiled at news conference Wednesday, closely tracks recommendations from the Texas Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response created in October when the nation’s first Ebola case was diagnosed in Dallas. The task force outlined problems in the state’s ability to respond and, with the bill, “we are trying to address the concerns raised last fall,” said state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, who authored the legislation and described it at a Capitol news conference.

The bill includes provisions that would allow the governor to declare a state of infectious disease emergency; create a regional stockpile of personal protection equipment for health care workers and first responders; allow state authorities to detain a plane or other transportation carrier if someone on board has a serious communicable disease; allow authorities to test the blood of pets for disease without a control order; allow cremation of remains without authorization; and allow state authorities to quarantine people at risk of contracting or spreading a serious disease.

Under current law, authorities can only enforce an isolation order if the person is caught violating it, said Dr. Brett Giroir, task force director and CEO of the Texas A&M Health Science Center.

The task force called it “critically important” to enforce such an order before someone can infect others, Giroir said. Under the bill, “they really have to stay in their homes, they’re not allowed to go to the state fair or get on buses or major transportation.”

That provision is likely to create the greatest debate, as quarantines did nationally last year.

Zachary Thompson, director of the Dallas County Department of Health and Human Services, said after attending the news conference that he supports the bill but wants local health officials to be granted the same quarantine authority. He was visiting lawmakers Wednesday to discuss that concern.

Giroir said Texas leaders have “taken to heart” lessons learned after Thomas Eric Duncan brought Ebola to Dallas from Liberia. He died after infecting two nurses, both of whom survived.

“Senate Bill 538 represents the next step in protecting Texans against infectious diseases like Ebola,” said Schwertner, flanked by several Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, which he chairs. “The bottom line is — protecting the public health and safety of Texas families is the highest responsibility of the state of Texas.”