MADISON — Public health officers have been given extraordinary authority to deal with the pandemic, and these unelected bureaucrats haven’t been shy about using this unprecedented — and constitutionally questionable — power.
La Crosse County Health officials have for months been developing a plan to employ Isolation/Quarantine Enforcement Officers with the power to round up individuals who fail to follow lockdown orders.
They are particularly interested in locking down the homeless, a “special risk” population, according to emails and other communications obtained by Empower Wisconsin.
The documents were sought in an open records request by Bernardo Cueto, an Onalaska attorney who had serious concerns that La Crosse-area health officials, through their expanded powers, were violating civil rights.
La Crosse County, like many local jurisdictions nationwide, has been forced to deal with the thorny issue of transient populations during the pandemic. The internal emails, many from the start of the coronavirus outbreak, show government officials trying to get a handle on how to lockdown the homeless.
Health officials began asking, what happens if someone fails to comply with a quarantine order?
“What comes across after reading all of this is the absolute confusion over what to do,” Cueto said. “They don’t seem to know what they are doing. Also what comes across is the absolute power of the unelected health officer to order anyone she wants to be quarantined.”
Let the record show
In an April 7 email to all Health Department employees, Public Health Nursing Manager Jacqueline Cutts wrote about the risks the “highly mobile” pose when they are “unhoused.”
“If one of them becomes infected and is not identified quickly or is allowed to move freely, disease could spread to other homeless individuals and to surfaces throughout the community, including places like grocery stores and chain stores because they are among the few places that are still open,” Cutts wrote. “For this reason, the best evidence-based action is to ensure that homeless individuals are handled intentionally.”
That means rounding them up and placing them at either the “isolation site” at the La Crosse Warming Center (Catholic Charities homeless shelter) for positive/symptomatic individuals or a quarantine site at the Ruth House(a women’s emergency homeless shelter) for “those who have known or unknown exposure and who are NOT yet symptomatic.”
The facilities, Cutts wrote, are not meant to serve as a nursing home or rehab facility.
Cutts’ email addressed concerns about volunteer and employee exposure to COVID-19 at the facilities. She noted the Center for Disease Control and Prevention advises that those wearing proper personal protective equipment, including an N95 mask, are “NOT considered to be at increased risk.”
“We consider the health and safety of our LCHD family to be of highest importance, and would never knowingly compromise your safety,” she wrote.
By early May, the health department was actively seeking candidates for Isolation/Quarantine Enforcement Officers.
In a May 4 email, La Crosse County Health Educator Brenda Hanson wrote that staff had phone contacts for three retired sheriff’s deputies, with two other pending. Ideally, she said, the department would hire as many as eight COVID cops.
“As soon as we finalize these documents/address anything I have overlooked … This will go to Corporation Counsel & I will contact the gentlemen to establish expectations and subsequently get them hired,” Hanson wrote to her health department colleagues.
The proposal calls for hiring enforcement personnel as county limited term employees.
The plan also calls for establishing a liaison with the local police department; “obtain restraints (e.g. handcuffs).” Handcuffs would be provided by the La Crosse County Sheriff’s Department or the La Crosse Police Department, according to the document.
Quarantine officers would be provided with La Crosse County Health Department emergency radios and a marked “enforcement vest.”
Under “Enforcement”, the proposal notes that non-compliant individuals will receive a fine for not more than $500 or up to 30 days imprisonment.
“Individual may be restrained in lieu of compliance,” the proposal notes.
Quarantine officers would make up to $30 an hour. Benefits include sick or injury coverage under workman’s compensation, food service “provided during shift; provided under isolation or quarantine”, and hotel accommodations for “officers where returning to home after exposure would expose other household members.”
The county bean counters must have had a change of heart, however. An ad posted on a government jobs page lists a wage of $25 an hour when the quarantine guards are on enforcement duty — $2 an hour when they are on-call during 12.5-hour shifts.
“This is an on-call, temporary position to guard established isolation/quarantine sites for those found to be at risk to the population relating to COVID-19. In the event an individual displays intent to violate communicable disease restrictions and/or orders, officers will be called in to enforce the orders and rules of the County Health Department or any local health officer,” the ad states.
One ad was posted on July 10. It’s not clear whether the COVID cops on are on the beat.
La Crosse County Health officials did not return Wisconsin Spotlight’s request for comment.
Several counties have proposed quarantine guards or officers in COVID-19 response ordinances, backed by sweeping state statutes dealing with communicable disease.
MacIver News Service on July 21 reported that of the eight counties known to be pitching the positions seven have either tabled or voted down the public health proposals. Door County passed an ordinance.
Marathon County supervisors originally talked about adding a provision that would allow ankle monitoring of COVID-19 “violators.” Hundreds of citizens turned out to express their opposition to the proposal.