The Best of 2011: The Centers for Disease Control vs. The Zombies

This post, the first of two by contributor Jeremiah Newhall to appear on our Best of 2011 list, allowed us to have a little fun with the CDC, well, having fun. It originally appeared on December 4th.

By contributor Jeremiah Newhall

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently posted an excellent article on what to do in case of zombie attack on its Public Health Matters blog. Of course, CDC is not really worried about zombies, but it is worried about emergency preparedness, and the “zombie attack” premise is a cheeky attention grabber which addresses this concern. Kudos to CDC (in particular to the author of the piece, Rear Admiral Khan) for tricking us into reading something educational, and perhaps even making us all better prepared for real life emergencies.

But while reading the post, I was struck by CDC's assertion that it would be in charge of fighting the zombie apocalypse:

If zombies did start roaming the streets, CDC would conduct an investigation much like any other disease outbreak. CDC would provide technical assistance to cities, states, or international partners dealing with a zombie infestation.

...Not only would scientists be working to identify the cause and cure of the zombie outbreak, but CDC and other federal agencies would send medical teams and first responders to help those in affected areas (I will be volunteering the young nameless disease detectives for the field work).

The CDC is getting ready. The only question is whether the zombies or the red tape will beat them first.

This got me to thinking: in case of a zombie apocalypse, who would be in charge? It’s a cop-out to say the President, or whomever the President delegates. After all, the President may be a zombie himself before the government can react. A zombie President (and Vice President) would not be technically dead (they’re undead), so succession would be hazy. Who would be the natural cabinet official, based on their responsibilities, to step up?

Especially in a pre-election year, there is another way to look at the question: if the President runs for reelection and needs to blame someone for his failure to stop the zombie apocalypse (can’t you just hear the partisan rhetoric?), which cabinet official is the natural to take the fall?

CDC would be a good-sense option to step up and lead the response; it’s an agency filled with brilliant doctors who love doing research on pandemics and epidemics and how to stop them. But when we have brain-craving zombies roving around, I think the Department of Defense might leap to the minds of most Americans: priority one, protect us from zombies. Priority two, cure zombies. I think doctors lose this one.

The question is thorny because all cabinet officers are equal; they report directly to the President, not to one another (here’s a nice overview). But a decent proxy for rank is order of succession, set by 3 U.S.C. § 19 (and in a more digestible form on The White House website). Of course, this isn’t absolute: no one expects Tim Geithner to be telling Leon Panetta whether to have the Marines target the zombies’ heads or hearts. (Always go for the head shot!) So we’ll look first for agencies that should have expertise in controlling zombie plagues, then use succession as a kind of tie-breaker.

At first blush, controlling a zombie uprising/plague seems like it should fall squarely in the bailiwick of the newly formed Department of Homeland Security. DHS does not include CDC; that falls under the purview of the Secretary for Health and Human Services (see the HHS org chart here). But DHS does include the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the folks who step in after hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes (see the DHS org chart here).

On the other hand, Janet Napolitano of DHS is actually last in line for the Presidency. Of course, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius doesn’t fare that much better; she’s seventh in line of the Cabinet officials (ninth overall, after the Vice President and Speaker of the House). Still, between FEMA and CDC, it makes more sense to hold CDC responsible for controlling a zombie epidemic. FEMA does best at picking up the pieces; quarantine laws are more likely to be enforced by the military and National Guard at the direction of the President on the advice of CDC (See, e.g., 42 U.S.C. § 264 and 42 C.F.R. § 70.6).

So in all likelihood, CDC would be in charge of guiding the President’s response to a zombie apocalypse. And thank goodness Rear Admiral Khan is already planning ahead, just in case.

Now, about the legal repercussions of shooting all those citizen zombies without due process ...

Jeremiah Newhall is a graduate of The George Washington University Law School and currently serves as a law clerk in Chicago. He can be reached via the miracle of email.

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