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As COVID misinformation spreads, medical boards in Maine and other states investigate doctors

Sandra Younam
Damian Dovarganes
/
AP
Registered nurse Sandra Younan wears a new pair of gloves at the emergency room of Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center in the Tarzana neighborhood of Los Angeles on Thursday, March 11, 2021. Younan spent the last year juggling long hours as she watched many patients struggle with the coronavirus and some die. Then there were the patients who claimed the virus was fake or coughed in her face, ignoring mask rules. One man stormed out of the hospital after a positive COVID-19 test, refusing to believe it was accurate.

A state licensing board’s decision this week to suspend an Ellsworth doctor is part of a growing national trend of disciplinary actions against medical professionals accused of spreading misinformation about COVID-19.

Public health officials contend that disinformation is a major obstacle to national vaccination efforts. Maine’s two medical licensing agencies, the Board of Licensure in Medicine and the Board of Osteopathic Licensure, have launched two investigations into doctors in response to complaints about potential misinformation.

On Wednesday, the Board of Licensure in Medicine released a lengthy list of allegations against Dr. Meryl Nass as part of the order temporarily suspending her ability to practice medicine in the state pending a deeper investigation.

The board’s preliminary inquiry alleges that the Nass repeatedly failed to follow basic “standards of practice” during telemedicine appointments with COVID-19 patients and admitted to lying to a pharmacist to obtain drugs not authorized to treat the disease. The board also quoted 17 public statements from Nass questioning the safety of COVID vaccines and espousing conspiracy theories about the government’s pandemic response.

Another physician, Dr. Paul Gosselin of Waterville, also had his license suspended last month by the osteopathic board over allegations of spreading misinformation and other potential misconduct. Because of confidentiality rules, however, it is unclear how many other COVID-related complaints state regulators have received.

But complaints against doctors have soared nationally during the pandemic. And more than 20 percent of state boards have taken disciplinary action against physicians for COVID-related issues, according to Lisa Robin, chief advocacy officer with the Federation of State Medical Boards.

“We do know from our recent survey of the state boards that there has been quite an increase in the number of complaints against doctors and that that has really skyrocketed during COVID,” Robin said. “But what we really don’t know is the number of those that are currently under investigation. Because in most jurisdictions, that information is confidential.”

Last July, the federation created a stir when it released a statement warning that doctors who spread or generate COVID misinformation risk license suspension, revocation or other disciplinary action. The statement went on to say physicians must “share information that is factual, scientifically grounded and consensus-driven for the betterment of public health.”

“But tragically we still have a small number of physicians and other health care professional that are spreading disinformation,” Robin said. “And we are concerned that it is endangering lives and exacerbating this pandemic. We believe it is one of the largest threats in addition to the spread of the virus itself.”

Last month, Nass was among five physicians who participated in a briefing for Maine lawmakers that was billed as an insiders’ perspective on the challenges facing medical providers. It turned out to be a one-sided briefing, however, featuring doctors opposed to Gov. Janet Mills’ vaccine mandate for health care workers.

Nass was one of two doctors on the panel that are affiliated with national groups that question vaccine safety and efficacy.

“I’m disappointed in my colleagues who have bought into the idea that the vaccines are unsafe and are enhancing the fear as though there is a credible argument to be made against these vaccines,” said Dr. Erik Steele, a family medicine physician who is also chairman of the board at the Maine Medical Association.

Steele said the vast majority of health care workers support the vaccine mandate. In one recent case that affected him emotionally, Steele said he learned that an unvaccinated patient he had seen had died of COVID-19. Steele said the man, who he did not name, was afraid to be vaccinated because of disinformation that he heard or read.

“The disinformation is part of a constellation of things that have led to thousands of Mainers not getting vaccinated,” Steele said. “And there is absolutely no question that that combination of things have led to many preventable deaths in Maine – and probably hundreds of thousands now in the United States.”

During a COVID-19 briefing this week, Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services said it was difficult to tell whether the misinformation landscape was getting better or worse. She added that is has evolved throughout the pandemic, however, and she said it is important that the state, the news media and the public call out false information when they see or hear it.

“All that said, I feel as though we all have an obligation to look at the research, to look at the science to make sure that statements are checked and double-checked,” Lambrew said.

But as the pandemic has become even more political, activists and politicians in some states have tried to hamstring medical licensing boards’ efforts to discipline physicians.

Last year, Tennessee's medical licensing board removed its COVID misinformation policy amid fears that a Republican lawmaker would dissolve the panel and replace its members. And the head of California’s licensing board claims she was stalked at her home and her office by activists affiliated with a prominent national anti-vax group pushing alternative COVID treatments. California’s board is investigating the doctor that founded the group, which started as a way to support former President Trump’s pandemic response.

Robin with the Federation of State Medical Boards says her organization is concerned about those legislative efforts.

“We believe that these are dangerous,” Robin said. “They would restrict a board’s ability to investigate a patient’s complaint and take any disciplinary action.”

It’s unclear if any such efforts could gain traction in Maine. One Republican state lawmaker has said the licensing boards need to be clearer about what constitutes misinformation and are being "too cavalier" with doctors' livelihoods.

Meanwhile, Dr. Meryl Nass has challenged the Maine Board of Licensure in Medicine’s authority over her and vowed to fight any disciplinary action. According to one text message cited by the board, she told one patient that she was “hoping to make a public spectacle of an investigation.”