Science Magazine  |  March 30, 2023

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Societies generally have reacted to deadly epidemics by strengthening health systems, including laws. Under American federalism (the constitutional division of power between states and the federal government), individual states hold primary public health powers. State legislatures have historically granted health officials wide-ranging authority. After the anthrax attacks in the United States in 2001, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) supported the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act, which granted public health officials even more expansive powers to declare a health emergency and respond swiftly. But all that ended with COVID-19, as state legislatures and courts gutted this authority. The next pandemic could be far deadlier than COVID-19, but when the public looks to federal and state governments to protect them, they may find that health officials have their hands tied behind their backs.

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