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Obama executive order allows detention of Americans with respiratory diseases

Obama executive order permits detention of those with symptoms of respiratory illness.
Obama executive order permits detention of those with symptoms of respiratory illness.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Thursday, Barack Obama signed an executive order that allows for the apprehension, detention, or conditional release of individuals with certain severe acute respiratory diseases, not including influenza. The executive order modifies one signed in 2003 by George Bush that allowed for the detention and quarantine of those with SARS.

"Severe acute respiratory syndromes, which are diseases that are associated with fever and signs and symptoms of pneumonia or other respiratory illness, are capable of being transmitted from person to person, and that either are causing, or have the potential to cause, a pandemic, or, upon infection, are highly likely to cause mortality or serious morbidity if not properly controlled," the executive order reads. "This subsection does not apply to influenza."

The same subsection in the original order read: "Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which is a disease associated with fever and signs and symptoms of pneumonia or other respiratory illness, is transmitted from person to person predominantly by the aerosolized or droplet route, and, if spread in the population, would have severe public health consequences."

Signed in the wake of the Ebola scare, the amendment means that Americans who simply show symptoms of respiratory illness can be forcibly detained for an indefinite period of time. In an article published at the Centre for Research on Globalization, Paul Joseph Watson explained "the actual preconditions for this to happen aren’t restricted to just those suffering from" the Ebola virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said on Wednesday, "has procedures in place to deal with such an outbreak backed by force of law." According to those provisions, healthy citizens who show no symptoms of the disease could be forcibly quarantined at the request of medical authorities.

"Quarantine is used to separate and restrict the movement of well persons who may have been exposed to a communicable disease to see if they become ill. These people may have been exposed to a disease and do not know it, or they may have the disease but do not show symptoms. Quarantine can also help limit the spread of communicable disease," the CDC says on its website, citing the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. "In addition to serving as medical functions, isolation and quarantine also are 'police power' functions, derived from the right of the state to take action affecting individuals for the benefit of society."

The steps are being taken in light of concerns that Ebola could spread in the United States. On Friday, ABC News reported that two Americans with the disease are being moved to U.S. hospitals for treatment. Despite precautions being taken, ABC said concerns have risen since the disease has never been in the country.

"This concern about the introduction of Ebola and its possible spread in the United States has been an aspect of this story that has taken off and somewhat surprised those of us in infectious disease and public health," Dr. William Shaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told ABC. "There are a number of reasons for that -- it’s a very very fatal virus, and this outbreak is the largest ever and it’s not controlled so that’s frightening. It’s exotic and mysterious coming from Africa, and now there are two American faces to it and in fact those American faces are coming home."