TUMWATER, Thurston County — Late last week, disturbing rumors started to fly on social media.
The state Board of Health, they claimed, was about to authorize local health officials and police to round up people for refusing to get coronavirus vaccines and forcibly lock them up in quarantine facilities.
It wasn't true. There was no such plan.
But the falsehood spread with omicron-like rapidity, fueled by misinformation from anti-vaccine activists, some conservative radio hosts and at least three Republican congressional candidates.
By the time the health board convened on Wednesday, the usually obscure panel had been deluged with more than 30,000 emails, hundreds of calls and requests from some 8,000 people to testify at its virtual public meeting. Some of the messages included threats to board members and staff.
Keith Grellner, the chair of the Board of Health, said in an interview this week the heated blowback was based on "totally false" descriptions of the board's meeting agenda.
"It's created confusion. It's created anger. It's created fear. And it is wasting a huge amount of government resources, time and money," said Grellner. "These people who put out this misinformation seem to relish in the chaos that they're creating."
In addition to the phone calls and messages, a couple hundred protesters showed up Wednesday morning outside the Department of Health offices in Tumwater, just south of the state Capitol in Olympia.
They raged at the nonexistent quarantine plot, as well as a real — but very early stage — study on whether to mandate coronavirus vaccines for children to attend K-12 schools. Some demonstrators waved signs comparing vaccine mandates to laws passed in Nazi Germany, and accusing Gov. Jay Inslee of tyranny and treason. Signs claimed state officials were setting up internment camps, with one referring to Joint Base Lewis-McChord as "America's Auschwitz."
Rickey Hardy, of McCleary, Grays Harbor County, was holding a sign declaring "Impeach Adolf Inslee" and wearing a yellow star of David on his camouflage jacket, a symbol Nazis forced Jewish people to wear during the Holocaust.
Hardy said he'd heard about the fake plans for quarantining vaccine refusers from "someone over the telephone" and added: "Google it. There's a lot of videos."
The rally was led by Joe Kent, the Donald Trump-endorsed candidate seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler in Southwest Washington's 3rd Congressional District.
Kent hyped the rally against "COVID tyranny" and "forced quarantine" on Twitter to his 125,000 followers, with an image of a woman locked in a room with bars on the windows. He also appeared on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon's popular "War Room" podcast this week to promote the event.
Jesse Jensen, a Republican challenging U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Sammamish, in the 8th Congressional District, fired off a press release condemning the health board's "Gestapo tactics to come into your home and detain you and your family."
Doug Basler, a perennial Republican candidate running for the 9th Congressional District seat held by Bellevue Congressman Adam Smith, also sent a news release urging opposition to quarantines he compared to "Soviet-style lockdowns."
At the rally, Kent claimed the board had changed its plans after public blowback, but board officials said that's false — the agenda was not changed — but the board did issue a statement seeking to clarify the agenda amid the tsunami of misinformation.
Kent said he understands the state wasn't about to "flip a switch" and start arresting people. But he said trust in government has been broken by two years of COVID-19 restrictions.
"They're exploiting and using the pandemic to take away our voices," he said. "This should be a public hearing at 6 or 7 o'clock in the evening so everyone can get off work and attend."
The board meetings are typically on weekday mornings.
Several members of the far-right Proud Boys group also attended the rally, which was addressed by Joey Gibson, the founder of the far-right Vancouver-based Patriot Prayer.
Gibson urged protesters to start showing up at the homes of local public health officials who are planning to create "concentration camps." He said demonstrators "should not commit any acts of violence — we're not at that point right now."
The Board of Health includes state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair A. Shah and nine volunteer members appointed by the governor — including physicians, epidemiologists and public health officials. Generally, the board serves as a public forum, prepares statewide health reports to the governor every other year and adopts a variety of health-related rules from school immunizations to disease reporting to environmental hazards.
Misinformation and Misunderstandings
The misinformation about quarantines appeared to flow by either deliberate distortion or mere misunderstanding of existing powers granted to local health departments.
The health board agenda item that inflamed so many was about updating the state's codes to reflect the Legislature's passage in 2020 of House Bill 1551, which generally modernized the state's control of communicable disease laws and was designed to limit the spread of HIV/AIDS and other serious or potentially fatal sexually transmitted diseases.
Under the law, a state or local public health officer can investigate someone if they have "reason to believe" the person has a serious, sexually transmitted disease and is knowingly putting the public's health at risk. If the health officer finds the allegations are true and the person continues to endanger public health, the officer can issue a health order requiring medical testing or counseling, or restricting certain behaviors for up to 12 months.
People under investigation can file an appeal and appear at a hearing in which only a Superior Court judge can order them into isolation or quarantine. Anyone who violates an approved health order could be guilty of a gross misdemeanor and receive up to a year of confinement or probation.
One Republican legislator said he sought to tamp down the false claims this week upon hearing an uproar from alarmed constituents.
"We need to make sure we squelch quickly the misinformation that anybody is going to go around and arrest anybody or detain anybody — certainly not an armed militia that is going to drag you out of your door," said state Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview.
Thousands of participants joined the virtual board meeting Wednesday morning, many of whom appeared to still be confused about the day's agenda. One board staffer typed in the chat window that within the first two hours, more than 2,000 comments had poured into the meeting's Q&A chat window.
"There's been some very inaccurate social media posts, which have been put out there falsely identifying a couple of topics that people claimed that we would be addressing today," Grellner said when he began the meeting.
He repeated that the agenda, which was posted online publicly last week, includes an update, not action, from the state's immunization technical advisory group — which formed in October 2021 to research whether a COVID-19 vaccine would meet all the scientific criteria needed to be added to the list of required K-12 immunizations.
The nine criteria address vaccine effectiveness, disease burden and implementation, meaning the advisory group is tasked with investigating the COVID shots' efficacy and affordability, the morbidity of the disease and the reality of delivering and tracking shots.
The 18-person group, which has met once, remains early in its research process. Leading the research effort is board vice chair Dr. Tom Pendergrass and state science officer Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett.
Staff members are currently in the process of scheduling future meetings and compiling data from the state Department of Health, Samantha Pskowski, policy adviser for the Board, said in the Wednesday update.
The next few meetings are expected to convene between now and March, Pskowski said. Once the advisory group finalizes its recommendation, it will present its findings to the board at a future, regularly scheduled meeting.
"I just want to emphasize ... that this is just a single step in a multistep process. The technical advisory group is just that — it's technical, focusing on the science and the data, and it's advisory, meaning we'll only make recommendations to advise the Board of Health," Kwan-Gett said.
Pendergrass offered a reminder that adding a new vaccine is no slam-dunk — the board has turned down recommendations for vaccines in the "near past," including vetoing a full requirement of the meningococcal vaccine.
While some education advocates, including the Seattle School Board, have come out in favor of a mandate for school COVID-19 vaccinations, Inslee has expressed doubts, saying recently he worries such a move would prompt many parents to pull their children out of schools.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last summer approved Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine for people 16 and older, making it the first of three COVID shots available in the U.S. to be upgraded from an emergency use authorization (EUA) to full approval.
For children aged 12 to 15, the vaccine can still be administered under an EUA, as well as third doses for certain immunocompromised individuals. The Johnson & Johnson and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines still await FDA approval but remain available for adults under an EUA.
In the interview, Grellner said he was disheartened by the largely misinformation-driven furor.
"It's scary and sad. What's even scarier and sadder, if it can be, is that, you know, people are so willing to accept this stuff as fact, and they won't even take the time to look at information when it's available to determine whether it's true," he said.