HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Is Law Working? Where COVID-19 Legal Epidemiology Goes from Here

Evan Anderson (University of Pennsylvania), Scott Burris (Temple University), Is Law Working? Where COVID-19 Legal Epidemiology Goes from Here, COVID-19 Policy Playbook: Legal Recommendations for a Safer, More Equitable Future. Boston: Public Health Law Watch (2021):

There was plenty of well-tested public health knowledge about virus control long before COVID-19. We had a good sense of the strengths and limitations of surveillance, information sharing, rapid case finding and contact tracing, quarantine and isolation. For many reasons — including the characteristics of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the attempts by Chinese local officials to suppress information, and the deliberate reduction of U.S. public health capacity — this approach was rapidly overwhelmed, thrusting the United States (and most of the world) into the far less familiar territory of trying to stop large-scale community spread. Leaders used emergency authority to throw up barriers to viral transmission, from stay-at-home orders to mask wearing, often in apparently haphazard combinations. It would have been possible to draw on expert knowledge and evidence of the use and effects of similar measures in long-ago epidemics of polio and influenza, but we see little evidence that decision makers did so, let alone that they benefited from existing scientific knowledge about law and human behavior in selecting and deploying new interventions. Although hundreds of researchers jumped to assess initial measures, the effort to quickly model, rather than painstakingly measure, the effects of policy, shortcutting peer review, and feeding research directly to the press and social media may have done more than harm than good. The predictions were not good enough, and have not helped us untangle the effects of policies alone or in combination. Looking forward, we hope that new leadership will bring a broader range of existing theory and expertise to bear in fashioning national guidance for COVID-19 control. We recommend significant investment as soon as possible in research assessing the deployment and effects of the emergency measures we are deploying, which in the long term can instigate and guide reform of emergency public health laws and their implementation in future pandemics. This paper was prepared as part of the COVID-19 Policy Playbook: Legal Recommendations for a Safer, More Equitable Future, a comprehensive report published by Public Health Law Watch in partnership with the de Beaumont Foundation and the American Public Health Association.

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