The cover story in this month's Tennessee Bar Journal, a publication of the Tennessee Bar Association, was written by a retired Newport attorney and addresses a timely issue: how to deal with a pandemic.
In "Tennessee Law in the Time of Pandemic Disease," attorney William O. Shults says if the U.S. has a deadly pandemic, the use of mandatory isolation and quarantine measures would be valuable in stopping the spread of the disease. He says those methods can be administered in a way to preserve core American values such as personal liberty and rights provided for in state and federal constitutions.
But Shults adds it is important that citizens be instructed, both in advance and during a pandemic, as to why isolation and quarantine are necessary for their well-being and that of the community.
Shults says examining China as a case study for containing infectious diseases such as influenza or the plague, shows there is a strong possibility that measures of isolation and quarantine might be ineffective if these measures are not known to and accepted by the population.
That the world will experience another severe pandemic flu event is generally acknowledged. Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt, one of the most respected infectious disease experts in the world, says the question is not if we will have another flu pandemic but rather when it will happen.
The article by the Newport attorney addresses intervention methods, which are tools for use in the event of a severe flu outbreak; isolation and quarantine. The use of social distancing techniques may seem controversial and even harsh, but both are provided for in Tennessee law along with protections to address the fears concerning violations of individual rights.
The question then arises as to how well Tennessee is prepared to protect its citizens from the next flu strain or any other deadly disease. Though local and state officials have studied the issue and prepared detailed plans for addressing an outbreak, the citizenry at large does not seriously appreciate the threat. Less than a third of the general population of Tennessee received flu vaccinations in the 2017-2018 flu season.
The Tennessee General Assembly has enacted legislation to empower the Commissioner of Health to put into effect rules and regulations should a disease present a threat.
"Obviously, any quarantine or isolation efforts balance the needs of society as a whole with the personal liberties of the individual," says Shults. “The Patient Bill of Rights acts to balance these interests by limiting confinement to the least restrictive method possible.”
Shults is a 1975 graduate of the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at the University of Memphis. He served as a commissioner on the Tennessee Claims Commission from 2006 to 2017. Prior to that, Shults practiced as an attorney in East Tennessee. Between 1985 and 1991 he served on the staff of the chairman of the National Labor Relations Board and in the Legal Department of the United Mine Workers of America in Washington, D.C.