More than half of US states have introduced new laws to restrict public health actions, including policies requiring quarantine or isolation and mandating vaccines or masks. Between the new laws and the massive workforce departures during the pandemic, public health in America is now in crisis, experts say.

The new restrictions and shortages not only affect responses to the coronavirus but also make it harder to contain outbreaks of the flu, measles and other health crises, and they put the US in a weaker position to combat future pandemics.

“We’re very, very concerned about the rolling back of public health powers,” Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, told the Guardian. “We thought there was going to be a renaissance for public health, and we may be at the cusp of a major decline.”

Separate investigations by Kaiser Health News and the New York Times found that at least 32 states have introduced about 100 new laws to restrict state and local authorities from addressing health crises.

“It’s a pretty grim future,” David Rosner, a public health and social historian at Columbia University, told the Guardian. “This is an eye-opening moment in American history, where we see all of these traditions and ideas being mobilized to basically create discord rather than harmony around disease. I’ve just never seen this before.”

Legislators in every US state have proposed bills to permanently limit officials’ ability to protect the public’s health. Some did not make it through the legislature or were vetoed by governors, while others are mired in legal battles.

These measures include banning mask and vaccine mandates, overturning public health orders, curbing emergency powers and wresting control over school, church and business closures, among others.

Local health officials are particularly worried about not being able to impose quarantines for those who have been exposed or isolation for those who test positive for the coronavirus or other infectious diseases, which allow them to spread unchecked.

“Isolation and quarantine are really, really important steps that a public health department will take when there’s any kind of infectious disease outbreak,” Plescia said. “These are the kinds of powers that allow us to act very quickly and resolve infectious disease threats before they become more widespread.”

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