ASTHO Files Amicus Brief with Supreme Court of North Carolina on Public Health Empowerment
May 12, 2023
ARLINGTON, VA—Last week, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court of North Carolina asserting that a public health official must be empowered to take quick action to protect the public health and safety of their residents and should not be liable for economic damages experienced by businesses subject to a public health order.
This case arose from the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic when community mitigation measures such as gathering restrictions and stay-at-home orders were issued by government leaders to enable social distancing and slow the spread of disease. In May 2020, North Carolina’s Governor issued an emergency order temporarily prohibiting gatherings of more than 25 people outdoors. Subsequently, the Secretary of the NC Department of Health and Human Services issued a public health order to a noncompliant business that was holding events with thousands of spectators, endangering public health.
The order was upheld by the trial court. The noncompliant business then filed counterclaims against the Secretary, seeking monetary damages for lost business during the period of time the business was closed. The outcome of this case is of great interest to ASTHO and its members who are concerned that allowing a business to sue a public health agency for lost revenue as a result of a public health action could chill future actions of public health officials.
"Public health officials must be empowered to take actions to limit the spread of disease based on the evidence available to them and fulfill their duties and obligations to the American people," says Michael Fraser, PhD, ASTHO CEO. "Like former HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt once said 'everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after will seem inadequate.' Simply put, the role of public health is to identify and stop the spread of disease. Public health's goal is to observe the health of our community, discern threats to that health, and nimbly respond to those threats. Keeping public health officials ability to swiftly implement interventions protects the health and safety of our families, friends, and communities."
The amicus brief notes that "there will be severe danger to the public if public health officials are reluctant—because of the potential liability precedent of this case—to take action to close a business, even temporarily, for public health reasons. Any delay in public health action could endanger the public and leaves communities vulnerable to disease outbreaks."
View the full brief.
ASTHO is the national nonprofit organization representing the public health agencies of the United States, the U.S. territories and freely associated states, and Washington, D.C., as well as the more than 100,000 public health professionals these agencies employ. ASTHO members, the chief health officials of these jurisdictions, are dedicated to formulating and influencing sound public health policy and to ensuring excellence in public health practice.