Multiple states have declared a ‘state of emergency’ over coronavirus — an expert explains what that means

California became the latest place to declare of state of emergency on Wednesday in response to the coronavirus, a move prompted by a sharp rise in cases in Los Angeles County, including one confirmed death. In a press conference, the state’s Governor Gavin Newsom said the declaration would help the state “further prepare our communities and our health care system in the event it spreads more broadly.”

Newsom’s decision followed similar ones in Florida and Texas, as well as in Washington state, where 10 of the 11 deaths from the coronavirus in the U.S. have occurred. According to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University, the viral outbreak now includes more than 96,000 cases globally and over 160 in the U.S.

As the virus spreads, concerns are mounting that other parts of the country may soon fall under a state of emergency. But what exactly does that classification mean, and how vital is it to stop an epidemic?

Here’s what you need to know.

States have their own guidelines

Unlike a federal state of emergency — which President Trump can declare — protocol for a local state of emergency may vary. The state may begin shifting resources to stop the crisis, launch an emergency task force or initiate any number of plans that have been put in place for an emergency. Rachael Piltch-Loeb, PhD, preparedness fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and associate research scientist at NYU School of Global Public Health, says the announcement is largely a good thing. “A declaration of a public health emergency can provide a state’s health sector with flexibility and guidance about the parameters of a response,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “States vary in their laws, and state law specifies how this declaration may be made, typically through a gubernatorial executive order or proclamation.”

Shelves where protective masks were once displayed sit empty at Jackson Hardware on March 2 in San Rafael, Calif. Four states have now declared a state of emergency. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Shelves where protective masks were once displayed sit empty at Jackson Hardware on March 2 in San Rafael, Calif. Four states have now declared a state of emergency. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The declaration allows state officials to bypass laws

It can often take months (or longer) for state officials to access funding or do things like impose quarantines, but a state of emergency often allows them more flexibility — as long as the actions being taken are to protect citizens. “Declaring a public health emergency can enable an expanded response shifting state ability to procure supplies, engage personnel, or spend on necessary measures,” says Piltch-Loeb. “For example, when a public health emergency is declared, states may waive state licensure laws to temporarily allow out-of-state health care professionals to practice in an affected state, may make procurement of medical supplies across state borders more efficient, and may expand healthcare professionals’ abilities, such as to more rapidly distribute vaccines.”

A state of emergency can allow for creative solutions

Piltch-Loeb says one of the most useful parts of the move is the ability to implement new strategies. “Once a public health emergency declaration occurs, states can often enact social distancing [which means avoiding unnecessary contact] or other public health measures on an expanded basis,” says Piltch-Loeb. “In addition to state public health emergency declarations, counties can also declare public health emergencies, which enables the county to ask the state for resources in the form of staff or personnel (like the Medical Reserve Corps) and supplies in an expanded way.” As pointed out by the Verge, the state of emergency declared in Kings County, Washington allowed officials there to purchase a motel to house quarantined patients. In San Diego County, the move allowed officials to submit for reimbursement for testing, which has the potential to cost thousands.

President Trump declaring a state of emergency will not override states

As of 2014, according to Piltch-Loeb, 24 states have public health emergency laws — meaning that they have their own strategy for combatting a viral outbreak. For those that don’t, an executive order may help fill in the gaps. “Not all states have specific public health emergency laws… making it vague what a public health emergency may mean,” says Piltch-Loeb. “In these cases, states typically shift to expanded executive power when terming something a public health emergency.”

But while it may seem confusing that states are enacting their own plans, Piltch-Loeb says a federal mandate would be an additive. “A federal emergency does not make a state emergency void. Rather, the two are distinct,” says Piltch-Loeb. “A federal state of emergency expands the financial resources and manpower available at the national level and can create a more coordinated response nationally. It shifts resources available to the states.”

Whether or not your state has declared an emergency, experts recommend practicing good hygiene and not touching your face. For more information about the outbreak, go to the CDC’s situation summary.

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