Protesters descend on WA Board of Health after misinformation about vaccination plans goes viral
TUMWATER, Thurston County – Late last week disturbing rumors began circulating 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 coronavirus vaccines and forcibly lock them in quarantine facilities.
That was not true. There was no such plan.
But the lie spread with omicron-like rapidity, fueled by misinformation from anti-vaccine activists, some conservative radio hosts and at least three Republican candidates for Congress.
By the time the health board convened on Wednesday, the usually obscure panel had been inundated 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 against board members and staff.
Keith Grellner, the chairman of the Board of Health, said in an interview this week that the blowback was based on “totally false” descriptions of the board’s meeting agendas.
“It created confusion. It created anger. It created fear. And that wastes an enormous amount of government resources, time and money,” Grellner said. “Those people spreading this disinformation seem to be reveling in the chaos they are creating.”
In addition to phone calls and messages, a few hundred protesters showed up Wednesday morning outside the offices of the Department of Health in Tumwater, just south of the State Capitol in Olympia.
They raged against the non-existent quarantine conspiracy, as well as a real study – but at a very early stage – on whether to mandate coronavirus vaccines for children to attend K-12 schools. Some protesters waved signs comparing vaccination mandates to laws passed in Nazi Germany and accusing Gov. Jay Inslee of tyranny and treason. Signs said 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, held a sign declaring ‘Impeach Adolf Inslee’ and wore a yellow Star of David on his camouflage jacket, a symbol the Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust .
Hardy said he heard about the fake vaccine denial quarantine plans from “someone on the phone” 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. Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler in southwestern Washington’s 3rd congressional district.
Kent promoted 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 this week on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s popular “War Room” podcast to promote the event.
Jesse Jensen, a Republican challenging U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Sammamish, in the 8th congressional district, issued a press release condemning the “health board Gestapo tactics to enter 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 out a press release calling for opposition to the quarantines he compared to ” Soviet-style interlocks”.
At the rally, Kent claimed the council changed its plans after the public returned, but council officials said that was untrue – the agenda was not changed – but the council released a statement aimed at clarifying the agenda amid the tsunami of disinformation.
Kent said he understands the state isn’t about to “flip a switch” and start arresting people. But he said trust in the government had been shattered by two years of COVID-19 restrictions.
“They are exploiting and using the pandemic to take our voices away from us,” he said. “It should be a public hearing at 6 or 7 p.m. so everyone can leave work and attend.”
Board meetings are usually held in the morning on weekdays.
Several members of the far-right group Proud Boys also attended the rally, which was addressed by Joey Gibson, the founder of the Vancouver-based far-right group Patriot Prayer.
Gibson urged protesters to start showing up at the homes of local public health officials who plan to set up “concentration camps.” He said protesters ‘shouldn’t commit acts of violence – we’re not at that stage right now’.
The Board of Health includes the Secretary of State for Health, Dr. Umair A. Shah, and nine volunteer members appointed by the governor, including doctors, epidemiologists and public health officials. Typically, the council serves as a public forum, prepares statewide health reports for the governor every two years, and passes a variety of health-related rules, from school vaccinations to disease reports in through environmental risks.
Misinformation and misunderstandings
The misinformation about the quarantines seemed to stem either from a deliberate distortion or a simple misunderstanding of the existing powers given to local health departments.
The health board agenda item that inflamed so many was about updating state codes to reflect the 2020 Legislature passing Bill 1551, which generally modernized state control of communicable disease laws and was designed to limit the spread of HIV/AIDS and other serious or life-threatening sexually transmitted diseases.
Under the law, a local or state public health officer can investigate someone if they have “reason to believe” the person has a serious sexually transmitted disease and is knowingly putting public health at risk. If the health officer concludes that the claims are true and the person continues to endanger public health, the officer may issue a health order requiring medical testing or counseling, or restricting certain behaviors for up to 12 months .
Those under investigation can appeal and appear at a hearing where only a Superior Court judge can order them into solitary confinement or quarantine. Anyone who violates an approved health order could be guilty of a felony and receive up to a year in custody or probation.
To date, such provisions have been used rarely, and primarily to limit the spread of tuberculosis, Grellner said.
A Republican lawmaker said he sought to stifle the false claims this week after hearing an outcry from alarmed voters.
“We need to make sure we quickly quell the misinformation that anyone is going to walk around and arrest anyone or detain anyone – certainly not an armed militia that is going to drag you out of your doorstep,” said Sen. Jeff Wilson, R. -Long term vision.
Thousands of attendees joined the virtual board meeting on Wednesday morning, many of whom still seemed confused about the day’s agenda. A board staff member typed in the chat window that in the first two hours, more than 2,000 comments poured into the meeting’s Q&A chat window.
“There were some very inaccurate social media posts that were posted that misidentified a few topics that people claimed we would be discussing today,” Grellner said at the start of the meeting.
He reiterated that the agenda, which was posted publicly online 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 of the necessary scientific criteria to be added to the list of mandatory K-12 vaccinations.
The nine criteria relate to vaccine effectiveness, disease burden and implementation, which means the advisory group is responsible for investigating the effectiveness and affordability of COVID injections, the morbidity of disease and the reality of delivery and follow-up of injections.
The 18-person group, which met once, remains early in its research process. Vice Chairman of the Board, Dr. Tom Pendergrass, and State Scientific Officer, Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett, lead the research effort.
Staffers are currently scheduling future meetings and compiling data from the state Department of Health, Samantha Pskowski, the council’s policy adviser, said in Wednesday’s update.
The next meetings should take place by March, Pskowski said. Once the advisory group finalizes its recommendation, it will present its findings to the board at a future regular meeting.
“I just want to emphasize…this is just one step in a multi-step process. The Technical Advisory Group is just that – it’s technical, it’s focused on science and data, and it’s advisory, which means we’ll only be making recommendations to advise the Board of Health,” Kwan- said. gett.
Pendergrass reiterated that adding a new vaccine is not a slam dunk – the council has rejected vaccine recommendations in the “near past”, including its veto of a full meningococcal vaccine requirement.
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, recently saying he fears a such a decision does not encourage many parents to withdraw their children from schools.
Last summer, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for people 16 and older, making it the first of three COVID vaccines available in the U.S. to pass. an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to a Full Approval.
For children aged 12 to 15, the vaccine can still be given as part of an EUA, as well as a third dose for some immunocompromised people. The Johnson & Johnson and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are still awaiting FDA approval but remain available for adults under an EUA.
In the interview, Grellner said he was disheartened by the furor largely driven by misinformation.
“It’s scary and sad. What’s even more scary and sad, if that’s possible, is that, you know, people are so willing to accept these things as fact, and they won’t even take time to look at the information when it’s available to determine if it’s true,” he said.