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What Happens When People Violate A Quarantine Or Isolation Order?

St. Clair County officials on Saturday announced the Metro East's first two positive cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. They held the press conference at the county health department. 03/14/20
Andrea Henderson | St. Louis Public Radio
A St. Clair County official, along with other public health experts, says people need to be educated about hygiene and COVID-19 for quarantines to be successful.

Around the country, quarantines during the COVID-19 outbreak have largely been by consent, not court order.

Public health officials ask individuals who are suspected of having COVID-19 and awaiting test results to stay in their homes and avoid contact with the general public. This is often for a 14-day monitoring period. But what happens when people violate their quarantine or isolation order?

A month ago, a family in St. Louis County made national headlines for breaking quarantine orders from public health officials to attend a father-daughter dance

In response, Spring Schmidt, co-director of the St. Louis County Department of Health, said symptomatic people can be jailed or placed in an isolation unit at a hospital. This was before public schools closed and before the stay-at-home orders. 

Now, with the number of cases rising, public health officials are stressing education over police disciplinary action. 

How quarantine works

When someone is ordered to quarantine in St. Louis, they get two papers: One is a notification they’re under quarantine for being suspected of having COVID-19, and the second is a how-to guide. 

“The form outlines in common language what quarantine is, so individuals will know what their responsibilities are and what the expectations of the health department are,” said Dr. Fredrick Echols, health director for St. Louis Health. 

Either the health department comes to check the person’s temperature twice a day, or the person is asked to self-monitor their symptoms and keep track of temperatures. 

According to federal guidelines, isolation separates sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick. Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick. 

In both cases, St. Louis County’s order specifies that people awaiting test results should isolate until they get a negative test result back. 

But there is no police officer sitting outside a quarantined home to make sure people stay home. 

Brenda Fedak, a spokeswoman for the St. Clair County Health Department, said the responsibility to abide by quarantine falls largely on the exposed or infected individuals.

“When you're in the middle of a pandemic or a health crisis, like we're in right now, your freedom to be free is still there,” she said. “But at the same time, there's responsibility that goes along with that freedom.”

Echols said the city has not seen many quarantine violations, but it has had to enforce quarantine orders in the past.

“They have to understand that our ultimate goal, our ultimate purpose, is to really protect individuals, our community and our community at large from COVID-19,” he said.

Echols said the key is providing individuals with resources they need to abide by the quarantine or isolation, including tools like thermometers, masks and hygiene kits.

When quarantine is violated

Current laws in both Missouri and Illinois give authority to health departments to isolate individuals with a contagious disease. Both states’ laws also say people who violate those orders can be charged with a class A misdemeanor. 

Only Illinois law specifies the quarantine or isolation order must be in written form. Although both St. Louis and St. Louis County have been providing written notices, there is no single procedure for the state to follow.

Colleen Connell, the executive director for ACLU Illinois, said quarantines are not a violation to individual liberties. 

“[We analyze] to make sure that the restriction on liberty is no more restrictive than it absolutely has to be to achieve the public health purpose,” she said.

So, Connell said she looks to see the quarantine has a reasonable time limit to be lawful. Connell said there is not a single right the government cannot “narrowly restrict” in this public health crisis. 

Connell said people should be persuaded to abide by quarantines through education, not arrests.

“Public education about the need to self-isolate is our best weapon,” she said. 

Officials say people who suspect a quarantine violation should contact their local health department.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

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