“We know that disinformation is killing people,” said Taylor Nichols, an emergency medicine physician in Sacramento, Calif., and one of the founders of No License for Disinformation, a coalition pushing licensing boards to discipline doctors who fly off the rails of accepted science. “When physicians, when credentialed folks, are the ones spreading the disinformation, that bad information becomes more sticky. It becomes harder to push back against.”
But in Georgia, doctors have been free to spread baseless assertions to the public with impunity. While Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey has expressed frustration with rampant misinformation, the agency that regulates doctors, the Georgia Composite Medical Board, hasn’t issued any public statements or guidance to physicians to counter misinformation or disinformation, much less handed out any discipline.
Dr. Rich McCormick's appearance on "The Doctor's Lounge" podcast in July 2020 was referenced in both a letter signed by 154 physicians asking the Medical Association of Georgia to rescind its endorsement of his candidacy for Congress and in a complaint to the Georgia medical board accusing him of unprofessional conduct. This image is from a YouTube video of that podcast recording, during which, according to the complaints, McCormick promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine for treating COVID-19.
Meanwhile, an internist in South Georgia has been openly prescribing ivermectin as a protection against COVID-19, telling a Florida television station that “there’s a lot of evidence that shows (ivermectin) works very well.” In fact, there is no definitive evidence supporting that, but myriad warnings have been issued about safety risks of using the drug to treat COVID outside of clinical trials.
An Atlanta-area urologist, who co-hosts “The Doctor’s Lounge” podcast with Barbour, has suggested that the COVID vaccines could cause the virus to evolve into more virulent strains — something infectious disease experts call biologically nonsensical.
An Augusta pediatrician has been accused of sending a letter to a family member titled, “COVID Advice for My Patients,” which, among other false claims, said the mRNA vaccines are more dangerous than coronavirus itself for many people and have caused thousands of deaths. The actual number of confirmed post-vaccine deaths is five — all linked to the non-mRNA Johnson and Johnson vaccine — out of more than 414 million doses administered.
“We know that disinformation is killing people."
- Taylor Nichols, an emergency medicine physician in Sacramento, Calif., and co-founder of No License for Disinformation
Amid the pandemic of the unvaccinated that overwhelmed hospitals over the summer, one national medical association after another has issued statements condemning doctors who spread misinformation — defined as false information presented as fact — or disinformation — which intentionally misleads people for profit or to further a political agenda. The Federation of State Medical Boards in July said those doctors who peddle such falsehoods “are risking disciplinary action by state medical boards, including the suspension or revocation of their medical license.”
Nationwide, such action has been scant, but the pace is picking up. Doctors have been sanctioned in other states for claiming that 5G internet networks cause COVID; that vaccines can make women sterile; and that masks cause carbon dioxide poisoning.
“I have never seen so much misinformation be spread through social media, through opinion leaders, through very prominent individuals,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean for Emory School of Medicine and a professor of global health and epidemiology at the Rollins School of Public Health. “If I was out there saying, ‘You can eat all the cakes you want because there’s no evidence that cake causes obesity,’ I think you would have some people questioning my credentials.”
Emory infectious diseases Dr. Carlos del Rio, one of the state's most respected medical experts on the pandemic, told the AJC, "If you're a physician spreading misinformation, you should be at least looked at by medical boards and the medical societies in your region.” Dr. del Rio is seen here addressing rising cases of the delta variant during a press conference at Atlanta City Hall on Aug 3. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Credit: Jenni Girtman
Credit: Jenni Girtman
Documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show Georgia’s medical board received a complaint last year accusing a doctor running for Congress of publicly spreading false COVID information, but the board took no action.
The board currently has two misinformation-related reports pending. One is a second complaint filed against the candidate, Dr. Rich McCormick, and the other involves Augusta pediatrician Dr. Alan Getts, involving the “COVID advice” letter to a family member.
Georgia regulators declined to discuss those cases or any others.
“We do support the guidelines by the Federation of State Medical Boards, and we do not believe that physicians should be disseminating any misinformation about the vaccines or about medications and treatments,” chairperson Dr. Debi Dalton told the AJC during a recent board meeting.
During an Oct. 7 meeting of the Georgia Composite Medical Board, held virtually, Chairperson Debi Dalton, at center, told the AJC that the board supports the Federation of State Medical Boards' guidelines on misinformation. "We’re trying to focus on evidence-based and science-based treatments," she said.
Credit: Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com
Credit: Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com
A Peachtree Corners resident who blogs on medical fraud filed the first complaint about McCormick in October 2020, saying the Republican candidate for the U.S. House’s 7th Congressional District had repeatedly promoted unproven drugs as COVID treatments and downplayed the severity of the virus. The statements were made in Twitter posts and during appearances on far-right media outlets known for promoting conspiracy theories about the pandemic and the 2020 election.
In one case, while wearing a white lab coat over hospital scrubs, McCormick told the cable channel One America News about hospital admissions plummeting and intensive care units clearing out and added, “My theory, based on just the evidence that we see firsthand, is that we probably do have a herd immunity.”
That was in June 2020, as President Trump was saying COVID-19 was dying out. Public health experts believed nothing of the sort, and by late June the nation was setting new records each day for infections. McCormick doubled down on the herd immunity claim in early September, as a summer surge put Georgia’s death toll above 6,000. “We’ve reached a point of saturation,” he said during a Rotary Club candidates’ forum.
Dr. Scott Barbour, an orthopedic surgeon with clinics across metro Atlanta, is affiliated with America's Frontline Doctors, a conservative political association known for spreading conspiracy theories and unproven claims about the pandemic. On his "Doctor's Lounge" podcasts, Barbour promotes vaccine hesitancy and derides face masks. This image is from a YouTube video of a podcast recording in March 2020.
The blogger, Peter Heimlich, accused the Northside Hospital Gwinnett emergency room physician of unprofessional conduct under the state’s Medical Practice Act.
McCormick, the only doctor identified in this story as making questionable statements who would agree to be interviewed, said case counts were falling off at the time, so he inferred the population was forming a resistance to the virus.
“Just like Fauci – and I want you to quote that – just like Fauci, I have not always been 100% accurate on everything,” McCormick said, referring to President Biden’s chief medical adviser.
In a February letter to Heimlich, the Georgia medical board’s executive director said that “the Board has determined that there was no violation” and closed the matter.
Heimlich filed the second complaint against McCormick after he appeared in front of the Gwinnett County school board in September to speak out against its mask mandate for students.
Dr. Rich McCormick, an emergency room physician and Republican candidate for the U.S. House’s 7th Congressional District, told the Gwinnett County school board on Sept. 23 that children can be so careless and unsanitary with masks, a mask can become a "disease-spreading organism." McCormick could offer no evidence to back up that claim.
After recounting his medical credentials, McCormick, who is still running for Congress, told the board that children don’t care for their masks properly, constantly pulling them off and on and setting them down on surfaces, which is “actually increasing the infections rather than decreasing the infections.”
He could not provide any evidence to the AJC to back up that claim but said he still believes contaminated masks have potential to spread the virus. CDC experts, however, have established that coronavirus spreads mostly through airborne particles, not surfaces. And study after study has shown masks curb infections in schools.
“Just like Fauci – and I want you to quote that – just like Fauci, I have not always been 100% accurate on everything."
- Dr. Rich McCormick, an emergency room physician and candidate for Congress
McCormick said he’s not concerned about state regulators investigating him. He said he wears a mask at work and advocates for taking COVID vaccines, so “good luck trying to tell me that I’m doing something wrong.
“I think it’s dangerous when we squash physicians who disagree with other physicians,” he said.
‘Beyond the pale’
Many medical boards are grappling with the question of how to parse between blatant misinformation and mere differences in medical opinion. The panels, made up largely of other physicians, traditionally have shown incredible deference to their colleagues. With the pandemic, though, there may be added hesitancy to open tribunals on doctors expressing opinions outside the mainstream since science constantly evolves.
“There is statutory authority for the board to take action,” the Georgia medical board’s legal counsel, Assistant Attorney General Max Changus, told the AJC during a recent meeting. “But the question is, I think, making a determination of whether or not you have false representations or misleading representations, especially in an area where there is disagreement, for lack of a better term.”
Some boards have asked the Federation of State Medical Boards for more guidance before they act, according to FSMB president and CEO Humayun Chaudhry. That guidance, expected by spring, may include model regulatory language for states to consider, he said.
“The federation’s goal would not be to make a list of what’s acceptable and what’s not,” Chaudhry said. “Because, just like in an outbreak and in the practice of medicine, the approach and the standard of treatment changes, and we recognize that. But at the end of the day, there are some statements that are just beyond the pale.”
Chaudhry did offer one example of unacceptable comments: claiming COVID vaccines are dangerous.
Some Georgia doctors have been making such statements right under the Georgia Composite Medical Board’s nose.
Dr. Barbour, who owns Barbour Orthopaedics clinics across metro Atlanta, and Dr. Hal Scherz, a pediatric urologist with Georgia Urology, are the rotating hosts of a podcast called “The Doctor’s Lounge” on Sandy Springs-based America’s Web Radio. While both have told listeners they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19, they regularly encourage vaccine skepticism, promote hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, and ridicule mask wearing.
Dr. Hal Scherz, a pediatric urologist with Georgia Urology, has told listeners of his "Doctor's Lounge" podcasts that "the vaccines may actually be resulting in worsening of the pandemic." Though he says he is vaccinated, he claims mass vaccinations are a mistake and that it would be better to let most of the population build immunity through getting infected, which public health experts say would cause deaths to skyrocket. This image is from a YouTube video of a podcast recording in June.
Barbour said in a September podcast that “I do not feel like the vaccine risks are worth taking,” after describing a process where antibodies could help a mutated strain infect cells more easily — something that hasn’t been observed with COVID vaccines and the delta variant.
In an Oct. 7 podcast, Scherz claimed that the vaccines “may actually be resulting in worsening of the pandemic.” He went on to say that, in the same way that indiscriminate use of antibiotics causes bacteria to become more resistant, COVID vaccines could cause the virus to mutate into more resistant strains.
Sophie Lukashok, an infectious diseases doctor and co-president of the Infectious Diseases Society of Georgia, said the assertion makes no biological sense. The vaccines have not been associated with viral mutations.
“The vaccines are actually extremely effective in neutralizing the virus,” Lukashok said. “The mutations in the virus are not due to vaccines. They’re due to uncontrolled replication, through uncontrolled transmission in the community.”
Neither Barbour nor Scherz responded to emails or phone messages left at their offices. But earlier this month they sat together for a podcast episode called “Silencing Doctors – All Hands on Deck,” in which the two blasted the AJC and said they had no intention of being interviewed for this story.
Doctors, they said, should be allowed to say whatever they think.
“You know, it’s one thing if you commit malpractice, if you do things that are actually harming patients,” Scherz said. “Words do not harm.”
Dr. Nichols, the No License for Disinformation co-founder, said there are likely thousands of COVID-19 deaths that could be attributed to belief in disinformation.
“If the argument is that malpractice is the reason for taking away a license, words can constitute malpractice,” he said. “Words are part of our practice. Belief in science is part of our practice.”
Staff Writer Ariel Hart contributed to this article.