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'We Want To Have People On The Record': SLU Pandemic Researcher On Quarantine Procedure

Rob Gatter, SLU professor of law, joined Tuesday's program.
Rob Gatter

About three weeks ago — which feels more like months in coronavirus time — Robert Gatter and his St. Louis University School of Law colleague Ana Santos Rutschman drew attention in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to what they consider to be Missouri’s problematic use of “informal quarantine.”

Officials’ decision in early March to simply ask, rather than formally order, a suburban St. Louis family to self-quarantine while awaiting COVID-19 test results seems to have backfired. The family’s attorney has said they weren’t told to stay home until after trips outside the home made headlines.

Gatter is quick to acknowledge that in many cases, people do and are abiding by informal quarantine measures, and he notes that the success of public health actions requires a great deal of public cooperation.

But “the current practice of oral requests to self-quarantine accompanied by an oral threat of a formal order is dangerous for several reasons,” he and Santos Rutschman write. They believe that includes the potential for miscommunication, mistakes and mistrust. Court orders, they say, increase transparency and force health officials to do their homework.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Gatter joined host Sarah Fenske in studio to dig into quarantine procedure as well as related topics that connect to his research on pandemic preparedness.

“One of the problems is that we want to have people on record. We want to have officials on record — it’s a big deal to limit somebody’s freedom of movement,” Gatter said. “We also want officials to be held accountable. If there is some way in which the order doesn’t make sense, we want individuals to have the right to challenge that with a court. And the prospect of that tends to help officials really refine their focus and thinking about who they’re ordering into isolation and quarantine, and who they’re not.”

Gatter, who is part of a bench of experts working with St. Louis County on its response to the virus, added that Missouri is hardly alone in its current, informal “asking” practices.

“It’s the exceptional state like Maryland that has a well-developed code,” he said. “Codes like this started to be not just developed but updated after 9/11. You might remember the anthrax scare — the federal government asked for some experts to develop a model state public health emergency code. That happened, and it’s been available since about 2003. Some states have adopted it wholesale, very few, but some have adopted it wholesale; others have adopted parts of it, and most states haven’t adopted any of it.

“And that might just be because it just doesn’t rise to the level, until we get an emergency like this, to be on the front burner for legislators and regulators. … Every state, including Missouri, has state laws that identify that public health may require that we quarantine or isolate someone, and that exists — that authority exists in writing. But few states have gone to the trouble to then say, ‘What are the procedures to carry out that power?’”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.