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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 13, 2001

State health director seeks expanded power

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Capitol Bureau Chief

The state Health Department has the powers it needs to cope with a bioterrorist attack, but health officials want several laws changed to help them deal with smaller outbreaks of disease or incidents of contamination.

Among the changes sought by state Health Director Bruce Anderson are a law to help authorities find people who may have been exposed to infectious diseases, and amendments to a law allowing the health director to force an ill person to go into quarantine.

Anderson told Senate Consumer Protection Chairman Ron Menor yesterday that once the governor declares a state of emergency, Hawai'i's Civil Defense laws give the Health Department all the authority it needs to cope with bioterrorism.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Anderson said health officials compared existing Hawai'i law with a draft model law sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and found there is no need for a major new expansion in state emergency powers.

However, Anderson said he wants the Legislature to "tweak" some other state laws dealing with health emergencies.

In one potentially controversial proposal, the Health Department wants the legal right to demand information such as the names and addresses of people who may have been exposed to infectious diseases.

The department has no legal right to demand that information from businesses such as hotels and restaurants even if someone has been on the premises with a potentially deadly infectious disease, and may have infected others, said Bart Aronoff, a planner with the Health Department's Communicable Disease Division.

Health officials want lawmakers to give them authority to demand enough information to find and warn people who may have been exposed. They also want the Legislature to protect people from liability when they release that information to the state.

The department also wants changes in the state law governing quarantine of people with infectious disease. The law dates from 1869, and Anderson said it almost certainly would be found unconstitutional if someone challenged it in court today.

The law allows the health director to confine any ill person in quarantine for as long as the health director sees fit, and the patient has no right under the law to appeal the quarantine decision to the courts, Aronoff said.

Anderson said the sweeping powers in the law were created amid fears of diseases such as smallpox and leprosy, and need to be modified to protect modern civil rights requirements and create a formal appeals process for people who are placed in quarantine.

Dr. Philip Bruno, chief of the Communicable Disease Division, said only one person with tuberculosis was required to enter quarantine in the past three years. He said that patient was placed in quarantine under a separate law governing TB cases that includes civil rights safeguards.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.