Last week, dozens of angry protesters gathered in Tumwater, converging on the state Board of Health’s regularly scheduled Jan. 12 meeting.
It was like a scene out of a lousy but all-too-familiar movie, with at least one man callously wearing a yellow star of David on his camouflage jacket and others carrying signs comparing vaccine mandates to laws passed in Nazi Germany, according to the Seattle Times. Many were drawn there by a false rumor gone viral: A claim that state officials were on the verge of setting up forced quarantine facilities for those who refuse COVID-19 vaccinations.
None of it was true, of course. Never was. In fact, the board was simply scheduled to discuss potential changes to Washington Administrative Code related to the state’s response to communicable diseases, and specifically HIV and AIDS. But what does that even matter these days?
While the dangerous conspiracy theory was thoroughly debunked, including by the state Republican Caucus and conservative radio host Dori Monson, the facts weren’t enough to stem the dangerous tide of misinformation. As a result, a flood of more than 30,000 emails poured in, according to the Times, including threats to board members and staff. The Proud Boys even showed up.
More troubling, at least here in the South Sound?
Two prominent Pierce County elected officials share responsibility for helping the dangerous conspiracy spread.
In a world where some would have you believe the truth is up for debate, it’s a fact voters deserve to know.
On Jan. 10, One Washington — a Gig Harbor based nonprofit best known for offering dubious workshops to those interested in seeking religious exemptions to state COVID-19 vaccine mandates — posted a video to YouTube featuring Republican state Rep. Jesse Young, no stranger to controversy and duplicity.
Discussing the state’s COVID-19 response and concerns over Gov. Jay Inslee’s pandemic mandates, Young — who represents the 26th district in the state Legislature — ominously warned that the Board of Health’s Jan. 12 meeting could “set the stage” for “greater detainment.”
In the video, Young also takes a swipe at those who might question his claims with — you know — the truth of the matter.
“They’re saying that there’s nothing to see here. There are going to be people that are going to push back on what we’re saying right now, because effectively they’re playing a very cavalier syntax game,” Young explains, seemingly playing his own game. “The game is that we caught them doing this, and they’re now saying, ‘No, we’re not doing that. We’re not trying to force roundups of people.’ But what they are, in fact, doing — while technically they’re not doing that — they are setting the stage to do that, and that’s exactly what Jan. 12 is all about.”
Again, that is not what the state Board of Health’s Jan. 12 meeting was all about. That can’t be stressed enough. As the board made abundantly clear in the days leading up to the meeting, the agenda item in question did “not include changes to isolation and quarantine policies” nor did it “suggest law enforcement be used to enforce any vaccination requirements.”
Unfortunately, Young wasn’t alone in helping the unfounded conspiracy theory gain traction.
Days before the One Washington video was uploaded, Republican Pierce County Council member Amy Cruver added her own fuel to the growing fire.
Cruver, who represents parts of rural Pierce County, sent a newsletter to constituents via her county listserv on Jan. 6. In her message, Cruver claimed that the state Board of Health would be discussing “potential policies” related to COVID-19 at its Jan. 12 meeting, including references to the bogus forced detainment camp claim.
Specifically, Cruver said the Board of Health would be considering COVID-19 related policies “allowing local health officers to use law enforcement to force an emergency order to involuntarily detain a person or group of persons (families) to be isolated in a quarantine facility following refusal to voluntary comply with requests for medical examination, testing, treatment, counseling (and) vaccination.”
To her credit, Cruver followed up with a newsletter the next day acknowledging the mistake — and attempting to correct the record. The policies scheduled to be discussed on Jan. 12 “do not impact requirements related to detaining infected persons with COVID,” Cruver rightly noted.
Broadly, she described her gaffe as one big misunderstanding.
“The agenda for next week’s State Board of Health meeting was rather vague and the agency was very helpful to clarify it with additional details,” Curver wrote on Jan. 7. “With so many messages on social media that can confuse issues, I wanted to share those extra details with you.”
Taken at her word (and most generously), Cruver appears to be a victim of misinformation — just like so many of those who showed up to protest the Board of Health’s meeting last week. She declined an interview request to discuss the matter, explaining through an assistant that she “has nothing new to add that would be of any value to your potential column.”
Young, meanwhile, remained defiant, dismissing the idea he’d helped to spread misinformation.
Asked about the video and his quotes, Young provided a letter he said was distributed by One Washington prior to the Jan. 12 Board of Health meeting making clear that the agency was not considering forced COVID quarantines, and pointed to a video posted after the meeting that essentially served the same purpose. He also insisted he was being intentionally misconstrued.
Concern and uproar in advance of the Jan. 12 Board of Health meeting, Young went on to suggest, were actually the result of Inslee’s “utter failure” to demonstrate “transparency and accountability.” Years of executive orders and emergency proclamations have caused people to lose trust, he argued, so it’s only natural that some are skeptical. As he did in the Jan. 10 One Washington video, Young urged the governor to join him in co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill that would prohibit the much-feared (and totally fictional) COVID-19 forced detainment camps.
In the same breath, Young again refused to admit any responsibility for helping to spread this dangerous nonsense, going as far as to suggest he should be applauded for his efforts.
“The sad part in all of this is the lack of recognition that efforts like mine and One Washington’s to attempt to bring clarity and calm are not being lauded at helping to keep people from going further than they did,” Young wrote via email. “The fact that you are seemingly attempting to paint that message as something other than it clearly is – is part of the problem.”
Young signed his email to The News Tribune with “veritas sine timore,” which is Latin for “truth without fear.”
On Wednesday, Kolina Koltai, a University of Washington postdoctoral fellow at the Center for an Informed Public who has been studying anti-vaccine misinformation since 2015, said that it’s been a problem since long before the internet.
Koltai said she hadn’t closely followed last week’s Board of Health meeting — or the role some Pierce County elected officials played in inciting unfounded fear and concern — but she wasn’t surprised by what transpired.
One thing recent history has helped make clear, Koltai said, is that regardless of intent or genuinely held beliefs — which can be impossible to know for certain — the outcome is what matters most.
People in positions of power have an obligation to share accurate information that goes beyond that of the general public, she said
“I do think the bigger audience you have, the more power and influence you get in the world, the greater responsibility you have to make sure what you’re communicating is truthful,” Koltai said.
“I think there is an expectation we need to hold people to … otherwise we lose trust in the institution and in their role.”
Here in Pierce County, they’re words Young and Cruver would be wise to listen to.
For the rest of us, it’s yet another painful reminder that you can’t always trust the messenger — even when they’re elected to serve.