Preparing for a Pandemic Outbreak UNMC to Host National Summit for Courts 1/9/19 01/09/19 12:28:51 AM
Concept art showing the entrance from Leavenworth Street to the National Center for Health Security and Biopreparedness. The center will collaborate with and leverage the capabilities of the iEXCEL program within the Global Center for Advanced Interprofessional Learning. (Courtesy University of Nebraska Medical Center)
Preparing for a Pandemic Outbreak
UNMC to Host National Summit for Courts
By Scott Stewart
The Daily Record
Courts would play an important role in overseeing efforts to save lives during a pandemic outbreak of a deadly disease, balancing the rights of citizens against the need to act swiftly.
Officials have been exploring scenarios where an outbreak of a contagious disease leaves public health responders scrambling to stop the spread of infection amid the panic following airport closures, broad travel restrictions and other emergency measures. Facing such a scenario, courts could be asked to approve and monitor broad searches, destruction of personal property, breaches of medical confidentiality, closures of businesses, quarantine restrictions and other legal actions.
A national summit in Omaha this summer will bring together officials to consider appropriate responses and work through tabletop exercises so courts are ready to respond to a pandemic, as well as other scenarios such as the quarantine of physicians traveling abroad exposed to an illness like Ebola who need to be monitored and potentially
isolated if they show signs of infection.
“Hopefully, these are issues that never come up, but I think we have to be prepared for them,” said Ted Cieslak, medical co-director of the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and medical director of the Nebraska Quarantine Unit.
The Nebraska Judicial Branch hopes the summit, along with the recent creation of a bench book on pandemic outbreak and other preparedness efforts will prepare government agencies to work together during a public health crisis.
The summit will bring together chief justices, court administrators, health officials and legislators to discuss how state and federal courts would address a pandemic outbreak. They’ll gather at UNMC and Nebraska Medicine’s brand-new National Center for Health Security and Biopreparedness, which is expected to be fully operational
sometime in the fall of 2019.
The $102 million facility, located at the southeast corner of 42nd and Emile streets in Omaha, will offer advanced training and simulation programs in addition to a dedicated quarantine center. That quarantine center will work with the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit, one of a handful of units in the United States that can treat people affected by bioterrorism or highly hazardous communicable disease such as Ebola, smallpox and multidrug-resistant tuberculosis.
The center will be the only federal quarantine facility in the country, Cieslak said. In the past, federal authorities have rarely invoked a quarantine. When they have, they’ve taken an ad hoc approach
requesting state and local assistance. Following the outbreak of Ebola in 2014, though, officials decided they wanted a federal quarantine facility to be available.
Cieslak said the operation of the facility prompts questions for the medical professionals, such as how they might detain an uncooperative person in quarantine.
“A lot of legal questions come up, at least to us (legal) amateurs,” Cieslak said. “The results of this conference could definitely impact how we see ourselves doing business.”
The physical shell for the center’s five-story building is nearly completed, but outfitting the interior will take several months, Cieslak said. He said quarantined persons won’t be able to be housed there until the summer, but a temporary quarantine facility is already up and running in an old pediatric ward of the adjacent medical center.
Cieslak said the center hopes to offer tours of much of the completed spaces to summit attendees this spring.
Carole McMahon-Boies, administrator of the Nebraska Supreme Court’s Attorney Services Division, said The Conference of Chief Justices held a gathering in Omaha about three years ago and toured the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit. The summit follows up on that meeting following the completion of bench books across the country on pandemic preparation by offering exercises walking through what would happen during a pandemic.
“It is really to focus on the appropriate response that the court system would give in the time of a pandemic,” McMahon-Boies said.
The summit will include a mix of judicial, executive and legislative branch officials working with medical professionals. McMahon-Boies said the two general areas to consider are how public health laws are implemented, such as establishing a quarantine, and how to run a court system when employees aren’t able to come to work, such as extending statute of limitations.
“There are laws that dictate who has the power to shut down courts, and those things don’t come up very often,” McMahon-Boies said. “Now with natural disasters and things, we’re starting to understand the need to have the judges know what laws are out there and what process is out there when you have to shut down or limit courts.”
The Nebraska Judicial Branch completed a bench book examining the challenges posed by a pandemic outbreak and offering relevant law to address those issues.
The process of writing the bench book forged a partnership between Nebraska judges and administrators of UNMC’s National Center for Health Security and Biopreparedness.
“The relationships built between judges and UNMC have been invaluable,” state court administrator Corey Steel said in a release. “Thanks to the administrators and doctors at UNMC, we have been able to clearly identify ways in which a public health crisis could impact Nebraskans.”
The summit is open only to invited attendees, according to a release from the Nebraska Judicial Branch. The three-day summit will begin May 22, 2019. It is funded through a grant award from the State Justice Institute and seeks to promote intergovernmental cooperation during a public health crisis.
For those not invited to the summit, McMahon-Boies said she expects there will be other educational
opportunities for attorneys to learn about what might happen during a pandemic or other disaster scenarios.
“It’s just an area of law that attorneys don’t get exposed to,” McMahon-Boies said. “Anytime you have the judiciary focusing on something, it is good for the practicing attorneys to know that there is a body of law and some issues out there.”
MORE ONLINE: Read “Preparing for a Pandemic: An Emergency Response Benchbook and Operational Guidebook for State Court Judges and Administrators” from the National Center for State Courts online at ncsc.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/facilities/id/194.