A Kansas bill would repeal the state's 1988 ban on quarantining individuals with HIV and AIDS as part of broader changes to its public health practices.
Under the proposal -- which has passed the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives and is pending in the Republican-controlled state Senate -- the power to issue any public health quarantine, as necessary, would shift to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. In the process, the bill would restore AIDS "or any causative agent" to the category of infectious diseases that might constitute the basis for quarantine or isolation.
Advocates argue the legislation would make it easier to develop rules quickly in the face of a health emergency. Opponents say that although they are confident that no HIV/AIDS quarantine would actually be imposed, there are other concerns.
"My biggest fear is not that we will see mass quarantine movements," said Tom Witt, the executive director of the Kansas Equality Coalition. "My concern is harassment. We will see this used to harass people."
Witt said he fears that local public health officials could try to use the threat of quarantine to intimidate individuals with HIV and AIDS or the LGBT community in general. He said that even though the U.S. Supreme Court declared laws criminalizing same-sex sexual activity to be unconstitutional in 2003, the anti-sodomy law remaining on Kansas' law books has been used as a means of harassment.
The legislation originally proposed in the state House focused on changing the law to allow for the drawing of blood without a warrant if first responders came in contact with bodily fluids when treating a victim. The bill was expanded in a House committee to allow for quarantines and other methods of preventing the spread of disease to be handled by regulation. Witt said that due to the original nature of the bill, it largely moved under the radar.
"Who knew they would come back with a substitute bill that would open up quarantine?" he asked.
State Rep. Barbara Bollier (R-Mission), a retired physician, said that the state Health Department assured her and other committee members that the amendment was not an attack on those with HIV and AIDS. Bollier, a moderate Republican who treated patients with AIDS in the early days of the epidemic, said that her personal experience led her to seek out assurances, but also noted that medically it makes sense to give public health authorities the latitude to act in the event of any type of outbreak.
"We were trying to make it a lot easier," she said. "You can't write out every single disease that could arise. No one had any intention of making this a political issue with HIV and AIDS."
Bollier said that the state's health and environment secretary, Robert Moser, is focused on disease prevention, not a political agenda.
Testimony from state epidemiologist D. Charles Hunt to a Senate committee likewise stressed the need to ease the restrictions on public health officials.
Addressing concerns about a possible HIV/AIDS quarantine, Paul Marx, the deputy chief counsel for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, told HuffPost that "it is not medically necessary or reasonable to isolate an individual infected with HIV." He also noted that state law would still require judicial involvement and proof of "medical necessity" before any type of public health isolation or quarantine were put into effect.
Scott Burris, a law professor at Temple University who specializes in public health and HIV law, said that bans on HIV/AIDS quarantines are not common at the state level. Moreover, the last time any kind of quarantine of people with AIDS was discussed, he said, was in the 1980s when scientists were still trying to understand the basics of the disease.
"This is like zombie legislation," said Burris.
More generally, he said it made sense from a legal standpoint to give public health officials greater flexibility in addressing ever-changing diseases. He stressed that quarantines have always been rare due to the expense and the civil liberties issues.
"The day we have an outbreak that we have not experienced before, we will want health departments to take quick action while the science catches up," Burris said.