Public Health Authority

The authority to act to protect and promote the public’s health has emerged over the course of our Nation’s history, and has enabled many of modern public health’s greatest achievements. Today, public health agencies use their authority to promote health, prevent the spread of infectious disease, protect against environmental hazards, advance equity and assure local public health infrastructure and health services. During declared emergencies, state and federal authorities have broader powers to act to assist governments, suspend or modify legal requirements, pass and enforce law and expend funds for the health, safety and welfare of society. Recently, some states have moved to limit public health powers. Such efforts pose a mounting challenge for public health’s response to COVID-19 and future threats.

Themes

  • Public health emergency declaration: On January 31, 2020, the first nationwide public health emergency was declared in response to COVID-19, and has been in place since. Emergency declarations at state and federal levels trigger authorities and resources unavailable in non-emergencies.
  • Scope of public health authority: Through the police powers of the state granted under the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, public health can pass and enforce regulation for the health, safety and welfare of society. During COVID-19, these actions included isolation and quarantine requirements, vaccination mandates, revised standards for licensure of medical professionals, and other public health emergency response efforts.
  • Threats to emergency powers: Recently, some states have moved to limit emergency powers and public health authority in response to perceived government overreach and outrage over handling of the pandemic. Such laws seek to prohibit mask wearing, ban the use of quarantine, block employer vaccine mandates, give legislatures unilateral power to stop public health actions, and more. These threats to emergency powers may compromise public health’s ability to respond effectively to COVID-19, health equity and future public health threats.

Equity & Systems

New laws to limit emergency powers and public health authority are concerning given their potential to create and perpetuate inequities. For example, preemption which may prevent communities from acting to deal with their own populations and relevant issues as needed. We can better understand the influence of policy on health and equity through a “Health and Equity in All Policies” approach to policy-making. Such approaches hold promise for centering equity in public policy discourse and advocacy, and transforming policies and systems for equity.

Featured Resources

This article examines how the nation may less prepared for the next pandemic than it was for COVID-19, partly through the story of a family physician in Washington state. It maps where state laws newly limit public health powers, reviews the history of public health authority, and provides county health department survey results with concerns […]

This report explores the history of public health authority, including longstanding and recent efforts to undermine it. It provides arguments to counter proposed legislation as a resource for public health officials, advocates, and policymakers.

This curriculum provides law training for state and local officials on how to balance public health authority against individual liberty using the U.S. constitution as a framework. It includes an overview of laws that affect how government can respond to health crises while advancing health equity.

Related Resources

Related Topics

Building Trust

Building trust in COVID-19 vaccination and other public health interventions is fundamental to the work of public health and efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic. We can build trust by combating misinformation, supporting trusted messengers and networks, improving our trustworthiness, and deepening relationships that engender trust over time. Building trust between public health and communities facilitates acceptance of public health interventions and can cultivate an equitable COVID-19 response now and conditions for well-being in the future.