ANNAPOLIS – Maryland lawmakers Wednesday continued attempts to fine- tune the state’s bioterrorism laws in the wake of last year’s terrorist attacks.
The House of Delegates approved a bill, 134-6, giving the governor and health secretary clearer powers to contain outbreaks of bioterrorism-related diseases.
The Senate is expected to vote on the issue Friday.
Yesterday, a bill dealing with outbreaks of agricultural diseases gained General Assembly approval.
The House bioterrorism proposal passed with 14 amendments, allaying most concerns of civil libertarians who feared the initial bill would suspend individual rights by forcing vaccinations and testing.
The revised bill allows adults to refuse vaccination or medical treatment, in which case, they may be isolated or quarantined until they no longer pose a health threat.
The new bill “goes much further than the original did in balancing public health and safety needs with fundamental civil rights protection,” said David Rocah of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
The bill gives the governor the authority to declare a catastrophic health emergency when lives are at imminent risk due to exposure to “deadly agents,” including anthrax, Ebola and smallpox.
The secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene also would have clearer and enhanced authority to quarantine infected people and take immediate treatment measures to contain the spread of a deadly disease.
Current laws dealing with large-scale health emergencies are decades old and do not provide clear power for the secretary to respond to an outbreak of a deadly disease, health officials told a Senate panel last month.
But civil libertarians said they feared officials would overreact without proper legal guards.
The revised bill addresses due process concerns by spelling out standards and language under which the health secretary may order a quarantine.
Individuals also may challenge a quarantine order as the bill provides procedures for judicial review.
“There was no due process protection whatsoever,” in the original bill, Rocah said. “The revised bill contains meaningful standards to guide the governor’s and secretary’s decision-making.”
Another change dealt with a religious exemption allowing parents to deny vaccination or treatment for infected children. Although supported by Christian Scientists, the provision was stripped.
“We’re pleased with the way the bill came out,” said Bobbi Seabolt, a lobbyist for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “They addressed training and preparation needs for children and protected them by removing the religious exemption.”
Delegate Kenneth Schisler, R-Talbot, said he voted against the bill because it no longer provided the religious accommodation.
The bill is one of several proposals recommended by the state’s Anti- Terrorism Task Force after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon.