They have decried COVID-19 as a hoax, promoted unproven treatments and pushed bogus claims about the vaccine, including that the shots magnetize the human body.
The purveyors of this misinformation are not shadowy figures operating in the dark corners of the internet. They are a small but vocal group of doctors practicing medicine in communities around the country.
Now medical boards are under increasing pressure to act. Organizations that advocate for public health have called on them to take a harder line by disciplining the doctors, including potentially revoking their licenses. The push comes as the pandemic enters a second winter and deaths in the U.S. top 800,000.
At least a dozen regulatory boards in states such as Oregon, Rhode Island, Maine and Texas recently issued sanctions against some doctors, but many of the most prolific promoters of COVID-19 falsehoods still have unblemished medical licenses.
“Just because it is physicians, it is no different than if someone called you claiming to be the IRS trying to steal your money,” said Brian Castrucci, president and chief executive officer of the de Beaumont Foundation. “It’s a scam, and we protect Americans from scams.”
Castrucci's organization, which advocates for public health, and No License For Disinformation, which fights false medical information, issued a report Wednesday that highlighted some of the cases. The report emerged a week after the Federation of State Medical Boards released a survey that found that 67% of the boards had seen an increase in complaints about COVID-19 misinformation.
That figure “is a sign of how widespread the issue has become,” said Dr. Humayun Chaudhry, president and CEO of the federation.
Dr. Kencee Graves, a physician at the University of Utah hospital in Salt Lake City, said one of her patients decided not to get vaccinated after listening to misinformation from a physician.
“She was led astray" by someone she should have been able to trust, Graves said, describing the patient as a “very, very sweet older lady.”
The woman later acknowledged her mistake, saying “I realize now I am wrong, but that is who I thought I should listen to.”
There is widespread support for cracking down on such doctors, according to a national poll conducted by the de Beaumont Foundation. In the survey of 2,200 adults, 92% of respondents said doctors do not have the right to intentionally spread false information.
But policing doctors is no easy feat for boards that were created long before social media. Their investigations tend to move slowly, taking months or even years, and many of their proceedings are private.
Castrucci said it is time for them to “evolve,” but doing so is challenging. This month, Tennessee’s medical licensing board removed from its website a recently adopted misinformation policy amid pressure from a GOP state lawmaker and a new law imposing sprawling virus-related restrictions.
Even individual board members have been targeted. In California, the president of the state’s medical board, Kristina Lawson, said a group of anti-vaccine activists stalked her at home and followed her to her office last week. She said the people identified themselves as representing America’s Frontline Doctors, a group that criticizes the COVID-19 vaccine and spreads misinformation.
The group’s leader, Dr. Simone Gold, who was arrested during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, tweeted this month to her nearly 390,000 followers that “nurses know that Covid patients are dying from government subsidized hospital protocols (Remdesivir, intubation), NOT from Covid.”
Gold remains a licensed physician in California, although her emergency medicine certification lapsed last year. Complaints and investigations are not public in the state, so it is unclear whether she faces any.
In Idaho, the state's medical association got so frustrated with pathologist Dr. Ryan Cole's promotion of the anti-parasite drug ivermectin that it filed a complaint with the state medical board. Susie Keller, the association's chief executive director, said she believed it was the first time the group sought action against one of its own. Many doctors, she explained, are fed up.
The spreading falsehoods have "actually caused our physicians and nurses to be subjected to verbal assaults" by patients who are convinced that the fake information is true, Keller said.
Cole did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press, but his work voicemail said that he is “unable to prescribe medications or issue vaccine or mask exemption letters." The voicemail also directed callers to the website of the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, a group that champions ivermectin.
Under Idaho law, all investigations of physicians are conducted in private unless there is a formal hearing. The Washington state medical board, meanwhile, is investigating five complaints about Cole, spokeswoman Stephanie Mason said.
Investigating misinformation is "very challenging in that a lot of action isn’t documented,” she wrote in an email. Many examples “happen quietly in an office.”
In Ohio, the state's medical board automatically renewed the license of Sherri Tenpenny in September after the Cleveland-based osteopathic doctor testified this summer before a state House Health Committee that COVID-19 vaccines cause magnetism.
Vaccine recipients “can put a key on their forehead; it sticks," Tenpenny said.
Jerica Stewart, a spokesperson for the state's medical board, said that a recent license renewal doesn't prevent the board from taking action.
“Making a false, fraudulent, deceptive or misleading statement" is grounds for discipline, Stewart said.
In Texas, Dr. Stella Immanuel appeared in a video that promoted the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine. "You don't need masks. There is a cure."
In October, the Texas Medical Board ordered her to pay $500 and improve her consent procedures because it found she had prescribed hydroxychloroquine to a COVID-19 patient without adequate explanation of the potential health consequences, records show.
Immanuel did not respond to a Facebook message from the AP, and the medical practice where she works did not respond to an email.
Dr. Nick Sawyer, who heads No License For Disinformation, described the action against Immanuel as a “small slap on the wrist” and accused the nation's medical boards of “not doing their job of protecting public health."
He said he has seen the damage firsthand as he practices emergency medicine in Sacramento, California. He said a diabetic patient in her 70s insisted just this month that she didn't have COVID-19 despite testing positive, then demanded ivermectin and signed out against medical advice when the drug was denied.
“She said, ‘If I have COVID, you gave it to me,’” he recalled, blaming the woman’s resistance on misinformation-spreading doctors. “It is killing us.”