What’s the Difference Between a State of Emergency and a Public Health Emergency?


A state of emergency and a public health emergency are two different ways in which the government can bring attention to a serious crisis that has occurred in the United States. Depending on the severity of the crisis and the intensity of the need associated with it, one may be more beneficial than the other at a given time. According to Addictions.com, the Trump administration just declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, although many believe they should have declared it a state of emergency.

A state of emergency is a national declaration of a serious problem. It is often defined as an issue that goes beyond the ordinary, problematic events of a country to threaten American citizens and cannot be easily fixed under the rule of law. As a result, a state of emergency allows government bodies to act outside of the law and to do whatever is necessary in order to fight the crisis at hand. 28 different states of emergency are currently still in place in the United States, but none of these are associated with a health problem or disease. A state of emergency lasts one year, unless the current president chooses to renew it when it expires.

By contrast, a public health emergency only lasts 90 days. It does not allow lawmakers and government departments to act with as much autonomy as the state of emergency does. Usually, a public health emergency is something like a sudden disease or an accident or weather problem that causes mass casualties. These crises are often short-lived, unlike the current issue of opioid addiction.

As a country, we have been fighting opioid abuse and addiction in a serious way since the 1990s, but unfortunately, this problem has been winning. More and more people die every year of opioid overdoses, and the addiction crisis shows no signs of slowing down. Sadly, a public health emergency declaration can only do so much to change this trajectory, and in many cases, it may not make a dent.

The Trump administration promises to use this declaration to offer telemedicine to rural communities, to allow healthcare workers to be hired more quickly, and to offer grants to individuals with substance use disorders who cannot find jobs. However, if the administration were to declare the opioid crisis a state of emergency in the U.S., many more benefits could arise, such as an increased access to naloxone in rural areas, increased funding for treatment centers, more support and fewer stigmas for addicts and treatment options like medication assisted treatment, and a slew of others.

All in all, a public health emergency offers little in the way of help when dwarfed by an issue as large as opioid addiction. Also, when it is compared to declaring a state of emergency, we can see how little it will actually do to create real change for the better. Still, every step toward dealing with the opioid crisis benefits us in some way and reminds us of the severity of this national problem.