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Legal and Public Health Concerns on the COVID-19 Response: Insights from Gitenstein Institute for Health Law and Policy

How will health care leaders address the legal, public health, and ethical issues raised by the COVID-19 crisis? Looking through the lens of past pandemics, health care law leaders recently offered insights at Hofstra Law’s Gitenstein Institute for Health Law and Policy and the Hofstra Bioethics Center’s “Responses to Coronavirus: Legal, Ethical, Clinical and Public Health Perspectives on Pandemic Disease”. Industry experts such as Distinguished Professor of Health Care Law Janet Dolgin, J.D.; Associate Professor of Public Health Anthony Santella, Dr. PH; and Professor of Nursing Renee McLeod-Sordjan, DNP, discussed COVID-19 and what public health officials can do to help prevent the spread of infection. 

Here are some of their insights: 

Protecting public welfare versus protecting personal liberties is a delicate balancing act. 

“Restrictions on peoples’ rights cannot under the constitution exceed what is necessary to respond to particular public health challenges,” says Professor Dolgin, the Jack and Freda Dicker Distinguished Professor of Health Care Law and Co-director of Hofstra’s Bioethics Center. “There’s a risk that the responses will be overly restrictive, curtailing liberties that should not be curtailed, and equally, there’s a risk that responses will not be restrictive enough.” Exploring landmark legal cases on these issues, Dolgin said that today’s decisions are likely to reverberate for a long time.

Proactive and reactive measures are both needed to successfully navigate a pandemic.

“Implementing aggressive public health control measures now will yield good health outcomes in the future,” says Hofstra Associate Professor of Public Health Anthony Santella. He noted that pandemics and epidemics of the past century, including the Plague, Spanish Flu, and more recently HIV/AIDS, and the H1N1 virus, provide important lessons for the public health concerns of today. Testing, isolating the sick and separating them from the well are tried-and-true means of slowing the spread of infectious diseases.  “The virus has no timeline,” Professor Santella says. “No one can predict when this will end when the public health precautions and measures are loosened up, we certainly can’t predict the outcomes. We have to choose to do what’s best for us and the ones we love.”

The ethical duties of healthcare professions expand beyond the individual patient to include the public at large during epidemics.

“What we have to do is really practice prevention and help all of those affected and not just concentrate on ‘it’s the one group that’s going to have this over another,’” says Renee McLeod-Sordjan, DNP, Chair of Hofstra’s Graduate Nursing Program and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs of the Hofstra Northwell School of Nursing and Physician Assistant Studies. “Duty to care, duty to plan, duty to guide and safeguard” are the top priorities she says. “One of the things that is going to be very important for us is to stay connected with self-care, with family care, and with community care.” 

Professor Dolgin added: “We are going to get through this, but how we move through this is of key importance.”