Public Health Emergency vs State of Emergency Explained

covid-19 cells with white background

Information from the U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH); The Verge; Ohio Department of Health (ODH); Governor of Ohio Mike DeWine  

Many U.S. states and local governments are under a state of emergency due to COVID-19, and the whole country has been under a federal public health emergency since the end of January. 

On March 9, 2020 Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed an Executive Order declaring a state of emergency in Ohio in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The state of emergency allows state departments and agencies to better coordinate in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

On March 11, 2020 Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish issued a state of emergency declaration for Cuyahoga County. This allows the County Executive to purchase mission critical supplies without going through the normal procurement process. 

What is a State of Emergency Declaration? 

Emergency declarations allow officials at the federal, state, and local levels to coordinate quickly and activate a set of powers that they can use to respond to a crisis. Every state or local government can issue a declaration of emergency to facilitate a response to a crisis by, for example, temporarily eliminating certain laws and executing regional emergency agreements. 

What is a Public Health Emergency Declaration? 

A public health emergency issued by the federal government gives the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) more flexibility to help states respond to a crisis. It also lets HHS suspend or modify some laws, such as laws requiring that medications only be given out in health care facilities or waiving state licensure laws to temporarily allow out-of-state health care professionals to practice in an affected state. 

The types of emergencies declared govern who takes charge during a crisis. If an emergency declaration is made, emergency management experts typically lead the response. A public health emergency puts departments of health in charge, which is why HHS is leading the response to COVID-19 at the federal level.  

Although the federal government has issued a public health emergency, it relies on states and local governments to carry out actions that will further address the crisis and reduce the spread of the virus.  

In Ohio, for example, Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton ordered the closure of all polling locations in the state to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Other public health orders issued by the State of Ohio can be found here.  

Not all states have laws that allow for public health-specific emergencies. Those states typically issue an emergency or disaster declaration. In those cases, the general emergency declaration policies include health emergencies. 


Sources: U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of HealthThe VergeOhio Department of HealthGovernor of Ohio Mike DeWine