Pandemics - Public Health Research Guide

This guide focuses on the law related to efforts in preventing, detecting and containiing pandemics on the international, regional and national level.

Sources of Legal Authority


The World Health Organization is charged with the coordination and monitoring of disease outbreaks across the globe. Specifically, under the revised International Health Regulations, IHR (2005) (entered into force in June, 2007), deals with the public health response framework public health emergencies.

National (U.S.)

Like police powers, most public health authority is based in the states (10th Amendment to the Constitution). However, federal public health recommendations significantly influence state public health practice. Besides, the federal government has authority to control entries of persons, goods and conveyances from other countries and impose quarantine.

Below is a selected list of statutes that give the federal government authority to deal with large scale emergencies:

  • National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. § 1601 et seq.) provides the President with the power to declare an emergency.
  • Homeland Security Act (6 U.S.C. § 101 et seq.) creates the Department of Homeland Security and grants the Secretary of Homeland Security a broad leadership role in planning for and responding to emergencies.
  • Stafford Act (Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act or Disaster Relief Act of 1974, 42 U.S.C. § 5121 et seq.) establishes provisions for federal assistance to states in the event of a disaster.
  • Public Health Service Act (PHSA) (42 U.S.C. § 201 et seq.) "creates important vehicles for federal funding of public health activities in state and communities."
    • Section 319 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. § 247d) authorizes the HHS Secretary to declare a public health emergency and "take such action as may be appropriate to respond" to that emergency consistent with existing authorities.
    • Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. §264) gives the Secretary of Health and Human Services responsibility for preventing the introduction, transmission, and spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the US and within the US and its territories/possessions. The statute is implemented through regulations found at 42 C.F.R. Parts 70 and 71. Under its delegated authority, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is empowered to detain, medically examine, or conditionally release individuals reasonably believed to be carrying a communicable disease. As of February 16, 2021, the CDC maintains 20 quarantine stations in the U.S.
  • Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act (FFDCA) (21 U.S.C. § 301 et seq.) "authorizes the FDA to regulate the safety of food and cosmetics, and the safety and effectiveness of pharmaceuticals, biologics, and medical devices." The HHS Secretary can authorize emergency use of unapproved products or approved products for unapproved uses under section 564 of FFDCA (21 U.S.C. §360bbb-3).

For proposed legislation, check:

  • - For the full text and status of pending and recently enacted health legislation, try a word search in the current Congress.
  • Current awareness tools (discussed under Secondary Sources in this research guide) - Newsletters, such as BNA publications, and other current awareness tools provide good sources of proposed federal legislation.


Many state public health statutes were enacted in response to specific diseases or health threats. 

  • State Quarantine and Isolation Laws
    Summary of state laws (does not include District of Columbia, or other territories) regarding quarantine and isolation consolidated by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
    • District of Columbia - D.C. Code Ann. §7-131 et seq. The Mayor may, upon the advice of the Commissioner of Public Health, issue rules to prevent and control the spread of communicable diseases...; D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 22 §200 et seq.
    • Maryland - MD. Code Ann., [Health-Gen.] §18-905 et seq. The Secretary of Health may issue an isolation and quarantine order.
    • Virginia - VA. Code Ann. §32.1-42 et seq. The State Health Commissioner shall have the authority to require quarantine, isolation, immunization, decontamination, or treatment of any individual or group of individuals when he determines any such measure to be necessary; 12 VA. Admin. Code § 5-90-105, 5-90-110.Summary of state laws (does not include District of Columbia, or other territories) regarding quarantine and isolation.

Other resources for state public health statutes are:

  • Cornell's Legal Information Institute's State Statutes by Topic: Health links to state health laws by state. The currency of the statutes varies by state.