Nearly 100 Alaska physicians have signed a letter asking the State Medical Board to investigate the conduct of local doctors who have publicly advocated for the use of unproven COVID-19 treatments during the latest and deadliest virus surge.
“We are writing out of concern that medical misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine and treatment is being spread in Alaska, including by physicians,” said the letter, which was drafted by Merijeanne Moore, a private practice psychiatrist in Anchorage.
“We hope that you will investigate this seriously, as the spread of misinformation has been identified as a threat to public health by the US Surgeon General, the Alaska Chief Medical Officer, and three medical specialty boards,” the letter said.
Moore said in an interview Saturday that she wrote the letter because of concerns over an event about COVID-19 treatments featuring prominent vaccine skeptics in Anchorage late last month.
She posted a draft of the letter in a local Facebook group for physicians, and it quickly gained support. “There’s probably close to 100 signers at this point,” she said.
The names included a range of hospitalists, physicians and surgeons from a wide range of medical specialties, Moore said, noting that more doctors may sign on in the next couple days.
She plans to submit the letter on Tuesday before Friday’s State Medical Board meeting, which includes a public comment portion.
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A ‘grave concern’
Last month’s “Alaska Early Treatment Medical Summit” held at the ChangePoint Alaska church featured doctors, mostly from the Lower 48, who have been criticized by many in the medical community for questioning the efficacy of vaccines and advocating treatments widely considered unproven, such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.
Two Anchorage doctors spoke at the event: Ilona Farr, a family medicine practitioner who said she’s one of 24 doctors in the state who have prescribed ivermectin for COVID-19 patients, and Hillside Family Medicine co-founder John Nolte, who introduced himself at the event as a main organizer, explaining that he met some of the other participants at a conference out of state and invited them to come to Alaska to speak.
The summit featured two sessions, one geared toward medical providers and another designed for the general public. The event was attended by about 1,200 people, according to Michael Chambers, who said he was the ticket coordinator and one of the organizers.
Moore’s letter calls local doctors’ involvement in the event harmful and a “grave concern,” and quotes a statement from the American Boards of Family Medicine, Internal Medicine and Pediatrics that describes “providing misinformation about a lethal disease” as “unethical, unprofessional and dangerous.” The Federation of State Medical Boards also said physicians who spread COVID-19 misinformation risk jeopardizing their medical license or facing other disciplinary actions from state medical boards, adding that sharing inaccurate vaccine information “threatens to further erode public trust in the medical profession and puts all patients at risk.”
Attempts to reach Farr and Nolte at their offices on Saturday afternoon were not successful.
One of the letter’s signees is Dr. Leslie Gonsette, an internal medicine hospitalist and member of Providence’s executive committee board who testified at an Anchorage Assembly meeting in September about what she was seeing inside the hospital’s COVID-19 ward, which was overwhelmed at the time.
Gonsette said in an interview that she has seen the deadly consequences of vaccine misinformation firsthand through the illness and deaths of unvaccinated patients diagnosed with COVID-19. She said she was especially concerned to learn about Anchorage doctors’ public participation in the event.
“It’s very shocking to see that the very people that are supposed to care for our community are actually pushing this agenda and indirectly actually causing deaths,” Gonsette said.
Moore said she believed that “it is the job of the medical board to investigate” the claims being made at the summit.
The Alaska State Medical Board is made up of eight members appointed by the governor, including five physicians, a physician assistant and two people with no direct financial interest in the health care industry.
According to an online roster, two positions are currently vacant and all current members were appointed by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
The potential to mislead
Speakers at October’s event included infectious disease researcher Dr. Robert Malone, who describes himself as the inventor of the mRNA vaccines when actually “the path to mRNA vaccines drew on the work of hundreds of researchers over more than 30 years,” according to a September article in the journal Nature.
Another presenter, Dr. Ryan Cole, is the subject of a state medical board investigation request by the Idaho Medical Association for making “numerous public statements in 2020 and 2021, concerning COVID-19 that are at significant odds with commonly understood medical treatment of COVID-19 and fail to meet the community standard of care.”
Malone and others urged summit attendees not to vaccinate children or recovered COVID-19 patients for the virus, contradicting state and federal health officials who say the risks from the vaccine are far lower than the risks from the virus and its potential for long-term medical problems.
Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson, who spoke at the summit, called the findings by presenters “the best science available.”
In an unsigned statement posted the day after the conference on Hillside Family Medicine’s website, clinic administrators wrote that “Dr. Nolte’s involvement in the conference was in hopes to help educate people regarding the importance of early treatment of COVID-19 and keep people out of the hospital.”
Dr. Tom Hennessy, an epidemiologist with the UAA College of Health, said in a recent interview that he was concerned about the negative impacts he believed could be caused by an event about “early intervention” that does not advocate for vaccination against COVID-19.
The vast majority of Alaskans who have been hospitalized or died with COVID-19 during the most recent surge have been unvaccinated. These are people who “missed the opportunity to have the primary prevention that we know works,” Hennessy said.
“So I think there is potential harm that can come from a lot of conversation about alternative therapies and very fringe ideas about where COVID came from, and people going to a place where they inherently mistrust authority, and therefore mistrust the vaccine” that millions of Americans have received, Hennessy said.
According to state data, in Alaska through September, unvaccinated people died from COVID-19 at 11.9 times the rate of fully vaccinated people. September and October 2021 were the deadliest months of the pandemic so far.
”If people are relying on sources of information that aren’t credible, that are not coming from an evidence-based perspective, they can be misled. The general public can be misled, and that can lead to harm and that’s what worries me the most,” Hennessy said.
Few rebukes in other states
There are few examples of state medical boards revoking licenses when medical professionals prescribe unapproved COVID-19 treatments or share misinformation.
In Washington, a physician assistant had his license suspended after more than a dozen complaints were filed against him for prescribing ivermectin to patients as a COVID-19 treatment.
In Oregon, Dr. Steven Arthur LaTulippe had his license revoked in September after he disregarded COVID-19 mandates, told his patients that masks don’t work and over-prescribed opioids, The Oregonian reported.
In San Francisco, Dr. Thomas Cowan voluntarily surrendered his medical license to California’s medical board more than a year after he claimed in a viral online video that 5G technology caused COVID-19, according to reporting by Cal Matters.
There have been growing calls, particularly among national medical groups, for state medical boards to discipline medical professionals who spread misinformation or disinformation during the global pandemic.
Alaska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, described the devastating consequences of the spread of virus misinformation in a recent op-ed for The Washington Post.
She described an unvaccinated patient who had spent hundreds on online remedies and “was suffering not just because of the virus, but also because of the deadly combination of misinformation and disinformation in a broken health-care system, in a country of broken trust.”
“I found myself exhausted as I sat there with him, humbled by this virus and acutely aware of how much work we have yet to do,” she wrote.