Tackling the Legal Aspects of Public Health Emergency Preparedness

By Meghan Fitzpatrick, Communications Specialist, Northwest Center for Public Health Practice, University of Washington School of Public Health

Imagine a new type of influenza or other communicable condition is spreading rapidly throughout your state or locality. Essential resources are quickly being depleted. State and local health care personnel are strained by the number of cases and infections within their own ranks. What legal powers do you need to respond effectively and protect the public’s health? Could you use volunteers from other states? If so, are they protected from potential liability?

Public health law, whether in an emergency or in routine situations, is a balancing act between keeping the public healthy and protecting individual freedoms.  Emergencies create unique legal circumstances for public health agencies and their staff. During emergencies, public health agencies need to know what powers public health officials will have, when they can request assistance from other jurisdictions, and how they will handle volunteers.

The Northwest Center for Public Health Practice’s online course, Legal Aspects of Public Health Emergency Preparedness, provides an overview and introduction to public health law in emergency preparedness. It raises questions to consider in the planning and delivery of public health or health care services in large scale emergencies, across different jurisdictions.

After completing this 90-minute course, you should be able to:

  • Identify key features of legal authority at different levels of government for responding to public health emergencies
  • Describe potential or actual legal powers, responsibilities, and risks during declared emergencies
  • Describe legal questions relating to the use of medical or public health volunteers during emergencies

The content for this course was developed in partnership with the Network for Public Health Law Western Region Office, at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University. It is part of a series of courses and resources funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to support public health law training.

Legal Aspects of Public Health Emergency Preparedness is available to the public at no cost through the Northwest Center for Public Health Practice’s website.


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