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Wash. health officer issues order to jail COVID-positive homeless man who refused to self-isolate

“It’s a very unique case and very rare,” said a Spokane Regional Health District spokesperson

By Maggie Quinlan
The Spokesman-Review

SPOKANE, Wash. — Spokane Regional Health District Health Officer Bob Lutz issued an order Thursday to isolate a COVID-19-positive man in Spokane County Jail after he refused orders to self-isolate, according to a news release from the county.

The jailed person was homeless, suffering from mental health problems related to alcohol and drug abuse, and refused all other isolation options, said Spokane Regional Health District spokesperson Kelli Hawkins.

Health providers were, she said, “dealing with an individual who didn’t want to isolate.”

There was no law enforcement involved in the forced jailing, Hawkins said, and the man was transported to the hospital via an ambulance.

“It’s a very unique case and very rare,” Hawkins said.

Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said paramedics were involved in transferring the man.

Schaeffer and Hawkins said they could not name him due to federal and state patient privacy laws.

If the man had been arrested by law enforcement, his name would be recorded in court documents. The Spokesman-Review could not locate court documents related to the man.

If the man needs a longer forced quarantine after Lutz’s health order expires July 11, Lutz will petition the courts, and a court order will be sent to the jail, the release says.

Schaeffer said detainment without a crime or public documentation presents a problem. At the same time, Schaeffer said COVID-19 is a serious disease, and people who test positive have a responsibility to the community.

“It is challenging. I don’t know that this has ever happened before,” Schaeffer said. “To me, I think there is an ethical issue. It’s a medical ethical issue of protecting the public, while at the same time trying to protect the patient and his or her rights. That’s a fine line to walk.”

The order faces opposition from the Spokane County Board of Commissioners and jail Director Mike Sparber, who said they are “distressed about this forced action” in a news release announcing the decision.

“That sentiment was shared with Dr. Lutz and the Hospital Leadership where this individual was previously held,” the release reads.

Lutz and Spokane County Detention Services Director Mike Sparber attempted to find a better solution, according to the release.

Lutz and Sparber offered to use corrections officers as guards at the hospital or to send the man to a “more appropriate isolation facility,” the release says.

“The vast majority of people who are living homeless or in a shelter do have options that do not include incarceration,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins said the SRHD has an isolation facility, at an undisclosed location, where the health district has “accepted and encouraged” unhoused people to isolate, whether they were awaiting test results or tested positive. Staff provide free food at that facility, Hawkins said.

The person jailed Wednesday refused to go to the isolation facility.

“We share the (commissioners’) same concerns,” Hawkins said. “This isn’t the way we’d like to have somebody isolated. Given this individual’s history of alcohol abuse and their desire to not isolate combined, they felt that this was the best option at this time.”

Jail staff are following strict protocols already in place for COVID-19 precautions and adding measures by wearing personal protective equipment and using sanitization with the COVID-19- positive inmate, according to the release.

Spokane Regional Health District and Detention Services will continue to work on finding a more appropriate facility for the inmate, the release says.