Can the CDC legally quarantine me in my own home?


The spread of the coronavirus may be slowing in China, but the disease continues to proliferate to an alarming extent in the United States and the EU. Many of the nation’s early cases involve the greater Seattle area, where experts believe that infected individuals quietly passed the virus around for weeks before showing symptoms.


Representatives from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) insist that the “complete clinical picture” of the outbreak remains unknown. A lot can change in the next few weeks as the CDC releases a greater volume of test kits to assist in diagnosis.


As new evidence shines a light on the increased scope of the pandemic, officials hope to limit its spread by implementing a comprehensive series of measures, several of which aim to limit interaction between infected individuals and vulnerable populations.


Quarantine in particular promises to reduce exposure, especially among already infected individuals who have yet to demonstrate clear symptoms of the disease. But while this approach can limit the scope of the virus, its impact goes far beyond infection rates. With infection rates on the rise, some concerned individuals are calling the legality of quarantine as a preventative measure into question.


Is the CDC authorized to impose quarantines?

The federal government’s authority to contain illnesses derives from the Constitution’s Commerce Clause. Specifically, the CDC cites Title 42 from the Code of Federal Regulations parts 70 and 71 as authorization for detaining, examining, and releasing traveling individuals suspected of carrying communicable diseases.

Additionally, the Public Health Service Act authorizes the Secretary of Health and Human Services to take necessary measures to mitigate the entry and spread of communicable diseases, both from foreign nations and between states.


Who else can take action?

At the state level, the CDC highlights the authority to issue orders involving isolation or quarantine to slow or halt the spread of disease. Although similar in several respects, these measures hold significant differences worth examining:


  • Isolation involves separating people currently diagnosed with illnesses such as COVID-19 from those who are not deemed sick.
  • Quarantine goes a step further by restricting anyone believed to have been exposed to a problematic illness. People do not need to be diagnosed to be quarantined.


While isolation and quarantine largely serve medical functions, the CDC also references them as “police power” necessities, derived from the government’s right to take action to benefit society—even if such actions may temporarily inconvenience select individuals.


Specific laws for imposing isolation and quarantine vary from one state to the next. In most states, however, the act of breaking an imposed quarantine constitutes a criminal misdemeanor.


How does this impact me?

The state and federal government’s broad authority over isolation and quarantine suggest the need for both planning and personal protection in the midst of the current pandemic. 


While hand-washing and other hygienic measures serve as a first line of defense against COVID-19 and other highly communicable diseases, such actions won’t prevent quarantine when the CDC suspects exposure.


The better you understand the government’s authority during this difficult time, the better you can prepare for the potential of isolation or quarantine