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Doctors affiliated with anti-vax groups briefed Maine lawmakers. One faces licensing board scrutiny

A panel of Maine doctors drafted by a Republican state senator earlier this month for a legislative information session about the state’s ravaged healthcare system included two physicians affiliated with national groups accused of spreading misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines and peddling unproven treatments for the disease.

One of the physicians is facing scrutiny from the Maine Board of Licensure in Medicine for admittedly lying to a pharmacist to fulfill a prescription of hydroxychloroquine for a COVID patient.

The admission by Dr. Meryl Nass, an internist in Ellsworth, was heard firsthand by the dozen or so lawmakers who participated in the Dec. 14 Zoom meeting, which was organized by Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, and staffed by a spokesman for the Senate Republican office.

During the meeting Nass identified herself as a consultant for the Children’s Health Defense — recently described by the Associated Press as “anti-vaccine juggernaut” — and told lawmakers that she misled a pharmacist because they would only provide the drug for an approved illness.

"And so I lied and said the patient had Lyme disease, which is another legitimate reason to get this drug,” Nass said. “And so the pharmacist dispensed the medication only because I lied. If I had said the patient was getting it for COVID, they would not have received the drug."

It wasn't the first time Nass has made that admission. Prior to the meeting with state legislators, she self-reported to the Maine Board of Licensure in Medicine and published a copy of the letter on her blog.

Nass told Maine Public Radio that she believes drugs like hydroxychloroquine are being suppressed by government officials who want to push newer, more expensive treatments and the COVID vaccines. It's a belief central to some factions of the anti-vaccine movement that often ascribe nefarious, profit-making motives to top health officials who promote or authorize vaccines.

Nass’ views on such matters are widely available on the internet, including on the Children’s Health Defense website, at one point earning her praise from the organization’s president, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Kennedy earlier this year lauded her post purporting to show that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, had lied about the origins of the coronavirus.

“Thank you, Meryl, because this is the piece that's going to bring Tony Fauci down," Kennedy told her during the June podcast segment. “If we live in a just or rational world he will be out of a job tonight and he will be riding out of Washington on rails to be tarred and feathered and sent off somewhere where they send scientific crooks and charlatans.”

Misinformation experts have a similar characterization for Kennedy and his organization, which doubled its revenue in 2020 to $6.8 million.

Irwin Redlener, a physician who researches misinformation and directs the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, told Maine Public Radio that organizations like Children’s Health Defense are fueling A "wildly out-of-control misinformation campaign" that has rocked the public health community and contributed to vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. and globally.

“I shudder to think if his father was aware of what Bobby’s become,” Redlener said. “I can’t even imagine how he’d process this. He’s an extreme, radical, uninformed guy making a lot of money off of scaring people about vaccines. You know, I'm an old Kennedy fan, and I find his presence in this particularly noxious.”

Redlener was also vexed that doctors affiliated with Children’s Defense Fund and America’s Frontline Doctors — which he’s described as “21st century, digital version of snake-oil salesmen" — would gain an audience with state lawmakers.

He said doctors affiliated with such organizations are leveraging public trust in their profession to push unproven treatments.

“They're articulate. They're doctors. And it’s hard for a legislator, who's not a scientist, to sort through this. This is one of the things I'm really concerned about," he said.

Keim’s invitation was sent to the Legislature’s 186 lawmakers. In that context, the dozen or so legislators who logged into the Dec. 14 meeting is a small percentage.

Attendance might have been more robust if Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, hadn’t sent an email to House Democrats warning that the session might be ripe for misinformation. Meyer, a registered nurse, did not attend the session, but did provide data showing that the primary reason for the state's strained healthcare system in not Gov. Janet Mills’ vaccination requirement for healthcare workers, but rather, the high number of unvaccinated COVID patients.

“I'm just about 30 years in an evidence-based nursing practice and so I'm particularly sensitive to misinformation and disinformation,” Meyer said.

Rep. Vallie Geiger, of Rockland, was one of the Democrats who participated in the Dec. 14 meeting. Until she read Meyer’s email, she believed the session “was a legitimate education session being provided by our legislative leaders.”

Geiger, a nurse on a small chemotherapy unit at LincolnHealth in Damariscotta, said she attended anyway because she wanted to hear the physicians’ perspectives.

She logged off after 40 minutes — immediately after Nass’ remarks.

“What I resented was an education being presented as though this were a balanced presentation to provide information to representatives, when in fact, it was propaganda and misinformation in a state that's already having a surging number of cases, the majority of which are unvaccinated," she said.

Democratic Sen. Ned Claxton, a retired physician from Auburn, took a different view. He said Keim asked him to speak with a doctor who was concerned about the vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, to which he agreed. That doctor then worked with Keim to organize the broader briefing with other lawmakers.

Claxton said he was not involved with inviting other doctors to participate in the briefing, nor did he view it as his role to “adjudicate” other speakers. Instead, Claxton said he was there to listen to the doctors’ viewpoints. And based on feedback from several doctors afterward, he felt the event was a success.

“There was never a conscious attempt to balance things,” he said. “We didn’t want this necessarily to be a debate. The intent was to have the physicians go away with a sense that they had been heard and having had the opportunity to talk to legislators directly, which is something that would be, I think, new to many of them.”

Redlener, the misinformation researcher from Columbia University, worried that giving voice to doctors affiliated with anti-vaccine organizations creates “a moral equivalence between the people who promote vaccinations and the people who resist them.”

He added, “There happens to be a right and wrong here. And I think we ascribe too much to quote-unquote balance — and the balance getting to be an argumenting force for people who have a different point of view, even though it is 100 percent wrong. It’s been refuted, it’s incorrect, it’s dangerous.”

To be clear, the 90-minute session was not dominated by anti-vaccine broadsides and only two of the five doctors who participated have known connections to anti-vaccine groups.

At times the meeting resembled legislative information sessions put on by interest groups promoting a bill or policy change.

Dr. Jake Brooks, an orthopedic surgeon who said he is vaccinated, lamented the staffing shortage that had delayed surgeries as he pushed for a compromise alternative to the mandate.

"You know, whether you're unvaccinated or vaccinated, we all have the same goal of caring for Maine people. That's why I'm here," he said.

Other panelists shared a different message, however.

Dr. Pam Shervanick, a Portland-area psychiatrist, claimed Maine's vaccination mandate for health care workers is causing psychological distress to staffers and undermining the state's medical system.

"So if the actual goal of the mandates is to improve the health of the citizens of the state of Maine, chronic fear is literally doing the exact opposite," she said.

Shervanick made no mention of it during the meeting, but she's affiliated with America's Frontline Doctors, a national group created in early 2020 to support former President Trump's pandemic response and that's now under investigation by a congressional committee for peddling COVID misinformation and unproven treatments such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.

The group's website is filled with videos containing patriotic messaging and imagery as well as "issue briefs" that question the effectiveness of the vaccines, oppose masking and rail against "medical cancel culture."

For anyone willing to pay the $90 consultation fee, America's Frontline Doctors will help set up a telemedicine appointment with an affiliated doctor in the person's home state who will prescribe hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin

The group's founder, Dr. Simone Gold of California, is among the hundreds of people facing federal charges for entering the U.S. Capitol during the deadly January 6 riots staged by Trump loyalists. In a video posted on the group's website, Gold states there is no health crisis and that "corrupt forces in the media, government and medicine have been lying to you."

Shervanick has posted numerous blogs to the website of America’s Frontline Doctors, which lists her as a “medical contributor.” In those blogs, she urged readers to stand together against mask mandates, spoke of a “vaccine nightmare” and personally thanked Gold as well as "the heroes that put fear aside to fight with her."

Shervanick was not available for comment.

Sen. Keim, who has participated in some of the demonstrations against the vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, told Maine Public Radio that she organized the meeting on her own. She said the session reinforced her belief that the vaccine mandate is ill-conceived, overburdens remaining health care workers and denies access to care across the state.

"The mandate is not the one thing that changed the trajectory of health care in Maine, but it certainly was incredibly bad timing to further impact our workforce when we were already on the edge," she said.

Asked whether the controversial backgrounds and statements from some of the doctors might undercut her efforts to persuade Democrats that the mandate is a problem, Keim said lawmakers constantly have to sift through outlandish statements and find “nuggets of truth.”

Keim said Nass' statement about lying to a pharmacist was unfortunate, but she was also disturbed about the doctor’s other admission during the meeting: that she had been reported to the licensing board for spreading misinformation.

Keim said she plans to write the board to express concern that doctors could be punished for ill-defined offenses.

“I think Maine is far too cavalier in ripping away someone's livelihood right now," she said.

Nass, for her part, said she plans to fight the board’s statement this fall that Maine doctors’ peddling misinformation could be sanctioned.

"They're creating crimes that did not exist previously without defining the crimes,” she said. “Does that sound like the United States of America to you?"

Nass also said she'll debate any licensing board on how to treat COVID.

She might just get the chance.

Medicine board director Dennis Smith last week confirmed to Maine Public Radio that he had received Nass' self-described confession letter.

While he would not confirm that she's under investigation, he asked if there was a recording of the meeting because, "the practice of fraud, deceit or misrepresentation in connection with services rendered by a licensee constitutes grounds for possible disciplinary action."

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.