VPR Header
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Blinkhorn: Quarantined

I remember my quarantine experience vividly, although I was just a small kid in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. My mother was diagnosed with diphtheria, an infectious upper respiratory disease. The town police chief, Vin Hall, came to the house one day with a large red poster, a hammer and nails. He nailed the poster to the front door... Quarantined, it read. I guess it really meant isolation since we couldn’t leave for a few days, as I recall.

Now, quarantine has its roots in an Italian, 17th century Venetian word – quaranta, meaning forty. That was the number of days ships were required to be isolated before passengers and crew could go ashore during the Black Plague epidemic.

The term quarantine is often erroneously used as a medical synonym for the term isolation, which is the practice of separating ill persons who have a communicable disease from those who are healthy.

The quarantining of people can raise civil rights questions, especially in cases of long confinement or segregation from society. There was the infamous case of an Irish immigrant, Mary Mallon - nicknamed Typhoid Mary. She was a typhoid

carrier who died in 1938, having spent the last 24 years of her life under quarantine.

The federal government, through the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, issues a list of diseases that could potentially result in quarantine action. The list can only be changed by order of the Center’s director. States, however, can have their own list. Vermont’s is longer than the federal government’s.

In Vermont, physicians and the commissioner of health have statutory authority to quarantine persons if they know or suspect a person has a communicable disease dangerous to the public health.

However, that authority is rarely used. Dr. Patsy Kelso, the state’s epidemiologist for infectious diseases, says there hasn’t been a quarantine issued in the 15 years she’s been with the Department of Health.

It wasn’t always that way though. In the late summer and autumn of 1918 – almost 100 years ago – Vermont, and the nation, were ravaged by the Spanish flu epidemic. It attacked the lungs, caused high fever, delirium and nausea. An estimated 13 percent of the state’s population of 356,000 was infected and a quarter of deaths in the state that year were attributed to the outbreak. There was a statewide ban on public meetings. Middlebury college was quarantined and the University of Vermont postponed the opening of fall term.

This inspired the state legislature to initiate major reform of health laws, including quarantine regulations. There have been many modifications over the years, resulting today in endless pages of communicable disease regulations.

Our old police chief Vin Hall would be impressed. I think.