In June 2014, Rex Archer, the director of health in Kansas City, Missouri, quarantined five families during a measles outbreak because several of the families’ members had contracted measles. The residents were told to stay in their home and avoid returning to work for several days.
Quarantine is a necessary, though difficult, measure that public-health officials sometimes take for people who are unvaccinated or at high risk of contracting a very contagious illness. In the case of measles, quarantine can last three weeks. Breaking quarantine can be a crime—one Wisconsin man was recently charged with a misdemeanor for going to the gym when he was supposed to be confined to his home.
For the Kansas City families, it quickly became clear that the quarantine would take its toll. As Archer and his colleague Abby Edsall wrote in the November issue of the journal Health Security, the families received food donations, but these were a mishmash of ingredients that didn’t form complete meals: peanut butter but no bread; a five-pound bag of dried cranberries; boxes of cereal without enough milk.
The health department persuaded the restaurants where the families worked to not fire them, but the families nevertheless faced steep consequences from avoiding work, according to Archer and Edsall. One family missed so many paychecks that they were evicted. Several people had their phones shut off after unpaid bills racked up. Ultimately, the health department had a collection among its own employees to raise money to donate to the quarantined families.