Public Health and Law Experts Issue Guidelines for U.S. Response to Coronavirus Transmission

illustration of coronavirus cells

Widespread transmission of the COVID-19 coronavirus within the United States is “inevitable” and a successful response to the epidemic must protect the health and human rights of everyone in the country, over 800 public health, human rights, and legal experts and organizations warned today in an open letter to Vice President Mike Pence and other government officials.

The open letter details a series of recommendations that government officials must consider through new legislation, policies, leadership, and spending. The recommendations stress the protection of vulnerable populations, including healthcare workers, people living with chronic health conditions, incarcerated individuals, and the elderly. Experts affiliated with Yale, Harvard, Northeastern, and Temple University, among others, as well as leading health and human rights organizations including the American Public Health Association and the Big Cities Health Coalition drafted and signed on to the letter.


“As the coronavirus spreads in our communities, governments must mount a fair and effective response that maintains public trust, is grounded in science, and leaves no individual — particularly the vulnerable — behind. This will not only better protect the health and security of each of us, but also the economy,” said Gregg Gonsalves, a Yale University epidemiologist and Co-Director of the Global Health Justice Partnership at Yale Law School.

“We need to protect our communities by enabling everyone to seek care and to help in the response.” —Amy Kapczynski, Professor of Law at Yale Law School

To achieve a fair and effective response to COVID-19 in the U.S., government officials must provide adequate funding; fair and effective management of surging health care demands; careful and evidence-based mitigation of public fear; and necessary support and resources for scientifically-sound infection control, the experts write.

The letter also emphasizes that there should be a plan in place for those in the custodial care of the government, schools, and institutions. People, especially vulnerable populations, should have access to care, and policymakers need to ensure that insurance barriers or lack of insurance do not inhibit testing or access to care.

“This is a test of our society’s basic principles of fairness. It will be a disgrace if social status and income determine whether a person can get care or follow public health guidelines,” said Scott Burris, the Director of Temple Law School’s Center for Public Health Law Research.

The experts add that the government must also take measures to ensure that people can cooperate with health officials, and that the emphasis should be on enabling people to follow voluntary measures. Adequate funding must be provided to enable people to stay home if ill or otherwise to support social distancing measures, such as school closures or quarantines. Income support will be important, for example to support those who don’t have paid leave, and protection from job loss for others.

States requiring people to quarantine or isolate must follow science and legal requirements — such measures must be necessary, for example, and must ensure humane conditions, such as adequate food and medicine. Moreover, the experts note that healthcare facilities must be immigration enforcement-free zones, and that the COVID-19 response should not be linked to or trigger immigration enforcement in any manner.

“If people are afraid to go to a hospital or to respond to requests from public health officials, then they — and all of us — are at much greater risk,” said Amy Kapczynski, Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Global Health Justice Partnership at Yale Law School. “We need to protect our communities by enabling everyone to seek care and to help in the response.”

Most current estimates put the mortality rate of COVID 19 at about two percent. Past experience suggests this may be an over-estimate, but even if the new virus is no more fatal than seasonal flu, it could stress the health care system and take tens of thousands of lives. This is the time to prepare for the worst.

The experts also emphasize that honest, transparent, and timely public communication of developments will be vital to maintaining public trust and cooperation.