Is Ventura County COVID-19 Testing and Removing Children from Homes?

Among early May 2020 rumors about “forced testing” Americans for COVID-19 (occasionally with increasingly hysterical rumors about purported home intrusions under H.R. 6666) was a consistent claim that the government sought to remove children from parents and place them in foster care — a rumor that was exacerbated by a May 6 2020 video tweet on the same subject:

In a May 11 2020 fact check, we examined a closely related (and completely false) rumor that California’s Department of Social Services sent a letter echoing Bigtree’s assertions:

Video and text (“VENTURA COUNTY, CA HEALTH DEPARTMENT, ‘WE’LL BE MOVING PEOPLE [FROM THEIR HOMES]”) accompanied the following commentary by Del Bigtree (@delbigtree), querying fellow users about how they might react if their child was “taken from” their home to a “quarantine center” after testing positive for COVID-19:

WHAT WOULD YOU DO if your six year old son or daughter tested positive for COVID19 and was taken from your home to a quarantine center by Ventura Health Authorities? This SHOCKING VIDEO demands that you plan ahead. #BeBrave #HistoryRepeating

Bigtree’s tweet displayed nearly 20,000 likes and 20,000 shares, and more than a million views. However, it is not clear what proportion of those exposed to the tweet actually viewed the content of the video itself.

Those who did not could perhaps be forgiven for coming away with the belief that Ventura County officials (“Ventura Health Authorities”) had come out and stated that they would be forcibly testing California families, yanking very young children from their homes should any test positive, and farming them out to something called a “quarantine center.”

A May 8 2020 Fox News item described Bigtree’s video as “edited” (but didn’t specify in which manner it was altered), and transcribed the short segment. In the May 5 2020 video, the director of Ventura County Public Health, Dr. Robert Levin, described plans to implement contact tracing and testing in that jurisdiction — saying in the purportedly damning portion referenced in the tweet:

For instance, if [people who test positive for COVID-19] live in a home where there is only one bathroom and there are three or four other people living there and those people don’t have COVID infection, we’re not going to be able to keep the person in that home. Every person we’re isolating, for instance, needs to have their own bathroom. So, we’ll be moving people like this into other kinds of housing that we have available.

Even condensed solely to Levin’s remarks out of context, nothing he said suggested that:

  • “Quarantine centers” were being utilized to segregate anyone, child or adult;
  • Any mandatory testing would be conducted on any Ventura County child or adult;
  • Children would be separated from parents in Ventura County in the case either tested positive or negative.

A careful reading of Levin’s words appeared to demonstrate that public health officials in Ventura County were ensuring that household members in small homes would be accommodated by the county to avoid infecting one another, although the details of such measures were not immediately addressed in the quote Bigtree selected — and government removal of children to “quarantine centers” appeared to be quite a logical leap.

On May 5 2020, a day before Bigtree shared the video, the Ojai Valley News covered the board meeting from which the viral video originated; an extremely benign headline (“May 5: Ventura County supervisors hear updates on reopening, contact tracing, restaurant meal program and more”) belied the not-at-all shocking nature of Levin’s broader remarks. The Ojai Valley News‘ reporting was described as “a brief rundown of presentations to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors at its May 5 [2020] meeting as those presentations occurred,” meaning each speaker’s remarks were transcribed or paraphrased in chronological order.

It appeared that Levin was seventh in line among speakers at the Ventura County Board of Supervisors May 5 2020 meeting, after County CEO Mike Powers, Supervisor Steve Bennett, Public Health Director Rigoberto Vargas, Supervisor Bob Huber, and Victoria Jump, director of the Ventura County Area Agency on Aging. Each speaker’s points and comments were summarized, and occasionally quoted.

Levin began with a rundown of the effects of ongoing social distancing measures and the resulting low level of infections and deaths in Ventura County relative to other parts of the United States. The newspaper’s use of summary interspersed with quotes is evident in the excerpt:

Begin by trying to remember back to 10 weeks ago.

We were looking at this wave that was coming at us. Our county has done an amazing job of protecting us from that wave.

It is important to know what has been prevented by the county’s actions.

In the same way, 10 weeks ago, deaths in our county were predicted to be 1,000. “I thought more realistically we would see 250 deaths.”

Levin’s remarks were subsequently summarized and quoted in part regarding contact tracing procedures as well as support for home isolation among Ventura County residents. Once again, portions with direct quotes are marked, and the balance of commentary appeared to be paraphrased under “Contact tracing[,] What does it mean”:

When someones tests positive for COVID-19, we ask them about all the people they have been in contact with. Those contacts are then contacted for possible isolation and quarantine.

The [initial] estimate was that there would be 10 or more contacts for every COVID-19 case. The reality, because of social distancing, is that there are now only two, three or four contacts for every COVID-19 case, “which makes our job easier.”

A person who tests positive needs to be isolated in their home, unless they are sick enough to require hospitalization.

Those contacts of COVID-19-positive people will now be tested for symptoms — that is new. That contact will then be quarantined and checked on every day by Public Health.

If that “contact” tests positive, they are then a “case” and not just a “contact.”

The county then determines if the person needs housing, food or medication and then we meet their needs.

Why is it important? By ensuring that those who have COVID-19 but are not symptomatic go into quarantine, we protect others.

Emphasis on all of this is that we protect others.

Attention to detail will reduce the number, will tamp the number of COVID-19 cases way down in our community. Once this program is in place, the chance of running into someone positive will go way, way down

We will avoid a hospital surge and reduce the chance of infection.

When restaurants reopen, with excellent contact tracing, we can be reassured it will be [extremely] unlikely that anyone dining or working in restaurants will have COVID-19.

Contact tracing is a milestone that the county must reach, and I believe has reached, to move from the governor’s Phase 1 to Phase 2.

For near-perfect contact tracing and follow-up, we need 10,000 contact tracers statewide. We have 10 new contact tracers in Ventura County who began training May 4 [2020].

Ventura County will bring on 40 to 50 or maybe more people to do contact tracing.

The county does not anticipate having to go out of Ventura County to find enough staff for the additional contact tracing.

The model is to have 10 contact tracers working with one supervising nurse, and that allows for scaleability.

The state offers a virtual training academy for contact tracing. Most counties’ contact-tracing employees will participate in high-quality, free training. Several counties will pilot the program and Ventura County is in the running to be one of them and is waiting to hear back.

The state will have one company to provide a contact-tracing management platform. A separate company will provide data management. Those companies will be announced later on May 5 [2020].

We excerpted the entirety of Levin’s paraphrased remarks for clarity, due to the manner in which they had been taken out of context. It was crystal clear Levin was not “threatening” to remove COVID-19 positive children from Ventura County homes, nor was anyone being remanded to any “quarantine center.”

Levin expressly described Ventura County efforts in contact tracing, a long-standing practice of determining who was exposed to an infected person on the days during which they were contagious. Those contacts are then notified of their exposure to infectious disease (in this case, SARS-CoV-2), and, if necessary, tested and quarantined or isolated. At the time Levin’s comments were spreading virally, Dr. Anthony Fauci entered a modified self-quarantine due to his own low-risk exposure to the virus which causes COVID-19 in early May 2020.

A key component of Levin’s remarks involved Ventura County building a sturdy support structure to ensure contact tracing efforts were not negated due to lack of resource, a detail he again made extremely clear. Levin said that:

  • Contact tracing was a key component of ensuring COVID-19 cases declined instead of increasing;
  • Contacts exposed to SARS-CoV- 2 would be identified through contact tracing;
  • Ventura County would then assess whether those exposed people required “housing, food, or medication”;
  • If so, the county would then “meet [those] needs” by ensuring those exposed to SARS-CoV-2 were provided with “housing, food, or medication,” thereby ensuring they did not needlessly infect members of their household, co-workers, or the public;
  • Said efforts were “important,” because by “ensuring that those who have COVID-19 but are not symptomatic go into quarantine, we protect others.”

Perhaps not articulated, but again clear, was the fact that exposed people without sufficient housing, food, or medication would go on to engage in activities such as work or household interactions, thereby exposing additional people unnecessarily and prolonging the localized outbreak.

Although it was clear that Levin’s comments had been twisted and weaponized by purveyors of disinformation, he still apologized for the “misunderstanding”:

“I either misspoke or it was misinterpreted – I’ll take the blame of having misspoke … [On May 5 2020] at this conference, at the Board of Supervisors, I gave people the impression that if you were isolated, you would be taken out of your home and put into a hotel room or a motel room or sequestered in some other way.

“If I did do that, I am very sorry. That is an option. That is possible. If you become infected, you don’t want to stay in your home, you’re afraid that you’ll expose other people, we’ll work with you to find a place to stay. And, it’s likely to be a hotel of a motel. We will desire for you to have your own room in your place of residence and a bathroom that can be dedicated to just you. Now, not everyone is fortunate enough to have more than one bathroom, so we’ll work with you.”

In a world not riddled by weaponized propaganda and disinformation and overrun by conspiracy theories, Levin’s clarification would be completely unnecessary. A reading of local news prior to the weaponization of his remarks could only be fairly interpreted as Ventura County’s plan to ensure that people in cramped households could be isolated in hotels or motels at the county’s expense — and no part of it discussed forcible removal of children from homes.

Nevertheless, Bigtree’s tweet dishonestly impressed upon well over a million people that Levin and Ventura County “Health Authorities” were implementing police state tactics to incarcerate six-year-olds who tested positive for COVID-19. Not only did Levin say nothing of the sort in the video, a day later he reiterated that the county planned to fund isolation for anyone found to have been exposed through contact tracing and who was in need of food,  housing, or medicine.