A routine Washington State Board of Health meeting on Wednesday became the subject of a nationwide disinformation campaign this week as social media users, political hopefuls and conservative pundits claimed the meeting would include a vote to force unvaccinated residents into COVID-19 quarantine camps.
A council communications officer said he had been inundated with more than 30,000 public comments, some threatening, linked to the false theory, which misrepresented the council’s planned HIV discussion as a proposed policy change COVID-19.
Demands erupted on social media, where widely circulated posts raised fears of COVID-19 ‘internment camps’, and activists rallied their supporters to attend a protest at Tumwater Board of Health at the meeting online Wednesday.
Even after the council clarified the facts on its website on Friday, the misconception that the state was plotting to hunt down and detain the unvaccinated persisted on social media platforms, on conservative talk shows and throughout the public comment period for Wednesday’s meeting.
Here’s a closer look at the facts.
COMPLAINT: The Washington State Board of Health, at a Jan. 12 public meeting, was scheduled to consider a proposed rule change to allow for the involuntary detention of unvaccinated residents in COVID-19 quarantine camps.
THE FACTS: This false claim completely misrepresents the state Board of Health’s scheduled Wednesday discussion of proposed changes to Washington’s Administrative Code, according to Keith Grellner, who chairs the board.
“What we’re doing on Wednesday with the communicable disease rule really has nothing to do with COVID-19,” Grellner told The Associated Press in a Monday phone interview. “It has everything to do with implementing a change to the HIV code that the legislature asked us to make last year.”
Whenever Washington State legislators pass new bills, state agencies codify those laws by creating rules and regulations in the Washington Administrative Code. The code has had a section on communicable diseases and some others since at least 1988, Grellner said, and it’s changed if lawmakers pass legislation that affects it.
In June 2020, state lawmakers passed a bill “ending the HIV/AIDS statutory exception, reducing HIV-related stigma, decriminalizing HIV exposure, and removing barriers to HIV testing.” according to the State Board of Health’s website. As a result, the council must adjust Washington’s administrative code to ensure its rules comply with the new law.
The section the board proposed to adjust, WAC 246-100, governs the state’s management of communicable diseases and certain other infectious diseases. COVID-19, as a communicable disease, falls into this category, but the changes currently proposed do not alter the state’s management of the disease, Grellner said.
WAC 246-100-040 is a subsection of the code that specifically addresses quarantine and isolation procedures. It’s been around since 2003. Social media users claimed the state Board of Health is proposing to change this section, but the Board of Health and the Office of the Code Reviewer, which governs the Washington Administrative Code, have confirmed to the AP that this section has no proposed changes and has not been modified since its introduction.
The Washington State Senate Republican Caucus also tweeted out a document verifying the false claims.
Grellner said he believes the state has only used its quarantine and isolation procedures when it comes to tuberculosis, and rarely. He added that the procedures do not give health officials “unilateral” power to take someone against their will – those affected would have the right to ask a higher court to be released.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, many states have long had laws in place giving health workers varying degrees of authority to require someone to be quarantined or isolated.
Some social media users have falsely claimed that the state Board of Health meeting on Wednesday will also include a vote to demand the COVID-19 vaccine for school-aged children. That’s not true, according to the state Board of Health. The council said on its website that it would receive a briefing from an advisory group on the subject at the meeting, but it would not take action on it on Wednesday.
Other publications have revived the months-old misleading claim that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s office is hiring a “strike team” to run camps where unvaccinated residents could be forced into quarantine.
This assertion stems from a genuine job offer, but not from positions requiring residents to self-quarantine. Instead, the job postings were for a facility in Centralia, Washington, where visitors to the state could safely quarantine themselves if they had no other safe place to go.
Mike Faulk, Inslee’s press secretary, confirmed in an email to the AP that the governor never considered hiring teams to track down unvaccinated people or force them into quarantine.
This is part of AP’s efforts to combat widely shared misinformation, including working with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.