The practice of quarantine, as we know it, began during the 14th century in an effort to protect coastal cities from plague epidemics. Ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. This practice, called quarantine, was derived from the Italian words quaranta giorni which means 40 days.
When the U.S. was first established, little was done to prevent the importation of infectious diseases into the country. Protection against diseases that came into the country fell under local and state jurisdiction. Individual municipalities came up with a variety of quarantine regulations for vessels arriving into their jurisdictions.
In the late 19th Century, outbreaks of cholera from passenger ships arriving from Europe caused the country to rethink the law in 1892 to give the government more authority in imposing quarantine requirements. Congress passed legislation that further made clear the federal role n quarantine activities. As local authorities came to realize the benefits of having the federal government involved, local quarantine stations were gradually turned over to the U.S. government. The quarantine system was fully nationalized by 1921 when administration of the last quarantine station was turned over to the U.S. government.
Originally, part of the Treasury Department, Quarantine and Public Health Service (PHS), its parent organization, became part of the Federal Security Agency in 1939. In 1953, PHS and Quarantine joined the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Quarantine was then transferred to the agency now known as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1967. CDC remained part of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare until 1980 when the department was reorganized into the Department of Health and Human Services.
When the CDC assumed responsibility for Quarantine, it was a large organization with 55 quarantine stations and more than 500 staff members. Quarantine stations were located at every port, international airport, and major border crossing.
Regarding quarantine now, the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine is part of CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infection Diseases and is headquartered in Atlanta. Quarantine stations are located in Anchorage, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, El Paso, Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, San Juan, Seattle, and Washington D.C.
Under its delegated authority, the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine is empowered to detain, medically, examine, or conditionally release individuals and wildlife suspected of carrying a communicable disease.
How were communicable diseases taken care of here in the Bear Lake Valley?
In the early days in Montpelier, without the benefit of wards and hospitals, early doctors relied heavily on the method of quarantine to stop the spread of diseases. Lack of wonder drugs of today left the doctors with little success and usually the best that could be done was to curtail the spread of disease.
For example, in 1901 and 1902, Montpelier had a “pest House” located near the mouth of Montpelier Canyon where individuals were sent when they were contending with communicable diseases. It was not a popular place and burned down in 1902.
A strange incident in an article written by a Dr. Theodore Van Dallen told of a strange case of LeRoy C. Miller.
Miller was employed by the Consolidated Wagon and Machine Company when he developed a pustular rash on his face and body. When he was checked by a pharmacist, he was told that he had smallpox. Miller was immediately moved out of the hotel in which he was living. He was taken by the mayor and the city officer miles into the country, given a tent and told to stay put until he was well. Every day a rider approached the tent, dropped a bag of food and necessary wants and fled. At the hotel the other guests were vaccinated and kept quarantined and kept under surveillance until the exposure period was past.
Even though quarantine is not as extreme as this any more, it is still extreme. In the U.S., quarantine is the most extreme use of government power over people who have committed no crime. Government officials can prevent travel, require vaccinations, make people submit to medical exams, and commandeer private property. Even those who are not sick can be ordered into quarantine — confined to their home or another location with others who may also have been exposed to a virus. When quarantine is medically justified, individual rights give way to the greater good.
But, it is safer and more healthy than a “pest House” or a tent in the woods. We should be grateful for that.