OLYMPIA — People won't be forced to participate in contact tracing and enforced quarantines are a rare measure used only by local health districts, Washington health officials said Friday, in an effort to dispel rumors over the state's coronavirus response.
Friday night's statement came as "rumors and misinformation" circulate online "about quarantine orders and specialized quarantine facilities" around Washington, according to the state Department of Health (DOH).
Health officials often ask people infected with or exposed to an infectious disease to voluntarily stay at their home and avoid contact with others, according to the statement by Secretary of Health John Wiesman and Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state health officer.
It's a strategy "used for decades to combat the spread of tuberculosis, measles, Ebola and SARS," according to the statement. During the COVID-19 outbreak, most people have been willing to take recommendations to isolate or quarantine.
The authority to force someone to involuntarily quarantine or isolate resides with local health officials, not the state.
"This authority is rarely used as a last resort when someone is intentionally putting others at risk," according to the statement. "We believe any facilities included in local health plans are most likely to be used by people who are willing to voluntarily isolate or quarantine but don't have a safe place available to do so."
Friday's statement comes as rumors have been circulated, including on Facebook by state Rep. Matt Shea, a Republican from Spokane Valley, claiming that any "isolation camps" would be "Voluntary until they are not."
There also have been rumors the state is requiring residents to comply with efforts to trace the contacts of those infected with COVID-19 to try to prevent a larger outbreak, according to DOH spokeswoman Amy Reynolds. Those contact tracers reach out to infected people, to check their close contacts.
But individuals are not required to speak to contact tracers, whose job it is to figure out who else might have been infected, Reynolds said.
"If they don't want to participate, they don't have to," Reynolds said. "But we hope that they will."
Contact tracers also give people the opportunity to find out that they had close contact with an infected person, Reynolds said.
This week, Gov. Jay Inslee issued reopening guidance for restaurants requiring customers to leave their information in case contact tracers needed to find them.
But after outcry -- including from the ACLU of Washington, conservatives and some restaurants worried about backlash from customers -- Inslee on Friday walked back that requirement, making it voluntary.