To read this document, sign up for free access to our entire library

By joining the ChangeLab Solutions community, you'll get access to all our law & policy resources. And we'll notify you when we release a new tool related to your sector or area of interest.

Public Health Threats & the US Constitution: What Responders Need to Know About Equity, Law, and Public Health Authority

Public Health Law Academy training

Good Governance

From communicable disease outbreaks (like the COVID-19 virus) to natural disasters (like Hurricane Katrina), public health law plays a central role in keeping Americans safe and healthy in times of crisis. However, the US Constitution requires that public health responses take into account the rights of individuals affected by emergencies.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, state, tribal, local, and territorial officials need to understand how to balance public health authority and individual liberty. Measures such as social distancing, isolation and quarantine, and mandatory examination and treatment all have constitutional implications. They also have the potential, even if well-intentioned, to not only maintain inequities but, in some cases, actually widen them.

This training explores how agencies can respond to health crises in ways that advance rather than hinder health equity. It introduces the constitutional principles and doctrines that protect individual civil liberties from government overreach. It explains what responders need to know about the law when preparing for and responding to public health emergencies. Take our quiz to test your knowledge.

The training also includes examples from real-life scenarios such as the imprisonment of a mother because she resisted treatment for her tuberculosis, as well as a court order that required parents to violate their religious and philosophical beliefs by having their children vaccinated during a 1991 measles outbreak.

After completing this training, you will be able to

  • discuss how emergency preparedness relates to health equity;
  • describe the role of law in emergency preparedness and response;
  • explain the powers and limits that the US Constitution assigns to public health authorities in regard to disease control; and
  • discuss the need to balance collective actions for the common good against individual freedoms.

If you are a TRAIN user or if you are interested in receiving credit for continuing education, please register through TRAIN.