A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

False Claim of Forced Removals Under Contact Tracing Bill


Quick Take

Viral posts on social media falsely claim that a House bill would “give the government the power to forcibly remove” children from their homes. That’s not true. The bill actually provides $100 billion to fund COVID-19 contact tracing efforts. 


Full Story 

A House bill that would fund organizations to trace and prevent COVID-19 infections has fueled a number of false and misleading claims on social media.

One of the most egregious misrepresentations is the suggestion that it would implement forced removals of children from their homes.

A bogus Facebook post, for example, claims the bill — unfortunately numbered H.R. 6666 — “will give the government the power to forcibly remove your family members from your home and quarantine them[.] That includes your children.”

A viral YouTube video similarly claims the legislation would “allow individuals to come into your house” and, if you have COVID-19 symptoms or test positive, “pull you or your loved ones, especially your children, away under pretense of public safety.”

But there is nothing in the bill’s current language dealing with forced removals, or giving anyone the authority to simply enter people’s homes without consent to conduct tests.

The bill — the COVID-19 Testing, Reaching, And Contacting Everyone (TRACE) Act — outlines a $100 billion program to be managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to award grants to “eligible entities,” such as health centers and clinics, universities and nonprofit organizations.

The federal money would be used by those organizations “to conduct diagnostic testing for COVID-19, to trace and monitor the contacts of infected individuals, and to support the quarantine of such contacts, through— (1) mobile health units; and (2) as necessary, testing individuals and providing individuals with services related to testing and quarantine at their residences.”

Those provisions support the concept of contact tracing, a public health technique that, as we’ve previously explained, involves identifying those who have had contact with an infected person so that those people can be warned and ideally tested or quarantined.

According to the bill, the funds would be used by the recipient organizations “to hire, train, compensate, and pay the expenses of individuals” and to “purchase personal protective equipment and other supplies.” Organizations in hot spots — areas with cases of the novel coronavirus higher than the national average — and those in “medically underserved communities” would be given priority.

David Studdert, a Stanford University professor of law and medicine, told us in an email that “there is nothing in the text of the bill” supporting the claim about forced removals. He pointed to the bill’s language that explicitly supports “testing individuals and providing individuals with services related to testing and quarantine at their residences.” (Emphasis ours.)

The CDC calls contact tracing a “key strategy for preventing further spread of COVID-19,” and many public health experts have cited it as an important component, too.

An April report by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, for example, said a “case-based intervention approach … will be impossible to achieve for COVID-19 without a new national initiative that combines a massive expansion of rapid diagnostic tests in every community with an unprecedented growth in a public health workforce and adoption of new technologies dedicated to case identification and contact tracing in each state.”

“In order to trace all contacts, safely isolate the sick, and quarantine those exposed, we estimate that our public health workforce needs to add approximately 100,000 (paid or volunteer) contact tracers to assist with this large-scale effort,” the report says.

It’s worth noting that existing state laws — and, to a lesser extent, federal law and regulations — already provide the government the authority to mandate quarantine or isolation to curb the spread of communicable diseases. But they’re not without limits or challenges.

“In broad strokes, the state can involuntarily isolate a person who is both sick and dangerous to the community,” Nicole Huberfeld, a Boston University professor of health law, ethics and human rights, told us in an email. “A number of judicial decisions have been issued over time that pertain to isolating a person who has, for example, drug-resistant TB, and they consistently have held that the person must have both characteristics to be lawfully held.”

Additionally, courts consistently have held that government must meet both procedural requirements and substantive requirements to involuntarily isolate a person,” she said.

Huberfeld said “courts apply procedural due process standards” afforded under the Constitution to ensure they have a right to understand and oppose the decision before commitment. She added that the state must meet the “substantive standards” under the Fourth Amendment, too — “meaning that government bears the burden of proving a person is both ill and dangerous to the community before she could be involuntarily isolated to avoid running afoul of the prohibition against ‘unreasonable seizure.'”

Someone forced to isolate retains the right to refuse medical treatment, Huberfeld noted, though that could potentially prolong the isolation.

None of this is changed by the current language in H.R. 6666 — which was introduced May 1 and is still before a House committee. As we said, there is no language in the bill proposing to “forcibly remove” individuals or children. And Huberfeld said the legislation does not affect the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizures — meaning contact tracers wouldn’t be able to just enter homes without consent to conduct tests, as the YouTube video suggests.

The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, has attempted to counter misconceptions about the bill on Twitter.

In a radio and Facebook Live interview on May 12, Rush said (at 1:17:12): “It’s all volunteer. There’s nothing about this bill that says that the government is going to come into your home and snatch your children … or snatch you out of the home. There’s nothing that remotely even hints at that.”

Another erroneous post claims the bill will give funding only to entities that “agree by contract that they will only allow people in their facilities that have the covid 19 vaccination, are tested and tracked.” There is no mention of vaccines, let alone contracts stipulating mandatory vaccinations, in the bill.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here.

Sources

Huberfeld, Nicole. Professor of health law, ethics and human rights, Boston University. Email to FactCheck.org. 12 May 2020.

Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “A National Plan to Enable Comprehensive COVID-19 Case Finding and Contact Tracing in the US.” 10 Apr 2020.

National Conference of State Legislatures. “State Quarantine and Isolation Statutes.” 27 Feb 2020. 

Parmet, Wendy E. and Michael S. Sinha. “Covid-19 — The Law and Limits of Quarantine.” New England Journal of Medicine. 18 Mar 2020.

Santita Jackson and Friends. The #SantitaJacksonShow | Tuesday, May 12, 2020.” Facebook Live. 12 May 2020. 

Studdert, David. Professor of law and medicine, Stanford University. Email to FactCheck.org. 12 May 2020.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) | Contact Tracing: Part of a Multipronged Approach to Fight the COVID-19 Pandemic.” 29 Apr 2020.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Legal Authorities for Isolation and Quarantine.” Accessed 12 May 2020.

U.S. House. “H.R. 6666 – COVID-19 Testing, Reaching, And Contacting Everyone (TRACE) Act.” (as introduced 1 May 2020)