Feb. 20, 2020 – As the coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread abroad, experts in law, infectious diseases, medicine and public health discussed potential outcomes and methods to confront the pandemic in a webinar hosted by the University of Houston Law Center's Health Law & Policy Institute.
The webinar was intended for the general public and media, but will be of particular interest to those in law enforcement, the judiciary, public health, business and education. Speakers discussed laws pertaining to isolation and quarantine while local health analyzed the epidemiology of the outbreak and efforts to prevent and respond to a potential emergency. There was also discussions of legal and practical issues for employers and educational institutions.
There were 140 attendees of the webinar, with viewers in Canada, Peru, Puerto Rico and the U.K.
Law Foundation Professor of Law Seth J. Chandler, an economics and health law scholar, moderated the webinar. He discussed how the greater Houston area and Texas could form an epicenter should COVID-19 become a pandemic in the U.S.
"We're in the gray zone between unwarranted optimism and induced panic, and both are mistakes," Chandler said. "Too little preparation and we could find ourselves overwhelmed. People do not always make good decisions under pressure when confronting new woes. Too much worry is also dangerous. Fear has costs. It can hurt the economy and can lead us to disregard other woes.
Chandler pointed to how the spread of the virus could spark immigration concerns, and referenced two statutes that would protect the U.S. - 8 USC 1182 (a)(1)(A)(ii) and 8 USC 1222.
"There are federal laws that do protect the United States against aliens with communicable diseases," Chandler said. "It renders those people inadmissible.
"Then what about people where we don't know they have a communicable disease but they come from a country or embarked in a place where any of certain diseases are prevalent or epidemic? Under this statute 8 USC 1222, these people can be detained until the uncertainty is resolved as to whether they have the disease. That detention seems to be about 14 days for COVID-19. Even if you aren't symptomatic, there is some possibility that you could be detained."
Chandler also discussed federal laws related to quarantines.
"Being a U.S. citizen does not immunize you from the potential for being quarantined," he said. "Section 70.6 of the Code of Federal Regulations are going to set for the circumstances in which U.S. citizens can be quarantined."
The opening speaker was Katharine Weber, a Principal at Jackson Lewis P.C., who addressed coronavirus concerns in the workplace. She said the three areas that challenge employers most are international operations and travel of employees, potential workplace exposures that might take place with co-workers, customers, clients and the public and planning for potential pandemics.
"As the coronavirus was breaking in early January, we started to get many calls from clients who were rightly concerned with what to do with their employees who were already in China or employees who were planning to go to China for business or personal reasons," she said.
"As we studied the situation we quickly recognized that we needed to put together a team that would address all the various labor and employment law issues that go along with helping employers manage this situation and making sure that No. 1 we comply with all the applicable laws."
Weber said it was important to analyze the risks and obligations for employees who are going to be working with international travelers who have returned from countries with the virus.
"We have to keep in mind that we have federal, state and local leave laws including family and medical leave and paid sick leave laws," she said. "All of those laws may come into play in the event we have an employee who has travelled internationally and come back and found themselves in the situation where either they have been subject to quarantine or alternatively they have been told they need to stay at home and monitor for 14 days.
"We also have the Fair Labor Standards Act and have to recognize the fact that it's a wonderful situation if we have employees who are asymptomatic but need to be out of a workplace for 14 days or the flexibility to allow them to work remotely. In that situation, there is no loss in pay. Times arise though where an employee may not be able to work from home. In that case we have to consider in terms of pay, which is where the Fair Labor Standards Act and our local wage and hour laws come into play."
Dr. Luis Ostrosky-Zeichner, Vice-Chair in Healthcare Quality and a professor in infectious diseases at the UTHealth McGovern Medical School, served as the second speaker, and addressed epidemiology issues surrounding coronavirus.
"Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are very common in many different species of animals," Ostrosky-Zeichner said. "It is one of the most common causes of the 'common cold' in humans.
"This iteration of the virus was first detected in Wuhan, China in December. Initial cases had a link to a large 'wet market' that suggested an animal-to-person spread. Subsequent cases indicated person-to-person spread, and cases are now being reported in several countries."
Dr. Umair Shah of the Harris County Public Health Authority discussed the local state of affairs as it pertains to COVID-19.
"This is an emerging, rapidly evolving situation and Harris County Public Health is monitoring the situation along with local, state, federal and global partners," Shah said. "Harris County has zero confirmed cases of COVID-19.
“Certain parts of our community have had a lot of rumors and information that's incorrect. The second part of any outbreak that we usually have to fight is misinformation."
The following speaker was Dr. Peter Hotez, Dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine. Hotez described how the impact of the coronavirus is not exclusively a health issue.
"Right now, central China is in a tight spot," Hotez said. "We're hearing some tough stories about people who are quarantined under difficult circumstances. There is some indication that elsewhere in China the number of new cases is going down. We will see how that plays out.
"One of the major points of this is the epidemic is having not only big health consequences, but catastrophic economic and security consequences for China. The economy is a bit in free fall right now."
Dr. Vanessa Tillney, executive director and chief physician of the University of Houston Student Health Center, was the final speaker. She discussed the significance of the distribution of accurate information.
“It's all about prevention, which will help reduce the spread,” she said. “We're addressing that with digital signage that will be brought up to all the screens across campus.
"Among considerations for students are to try and ameliorate stress. As it stands, many students suffer from anxiety and stress from their experience during their academic years because of all the pressures. We want to try to reduce unnecessary concerns by sticking with the facts.”