‘Health freedom’ activists win seats on major hospital board: NPR

Campus of Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, Florida. Three newly elected members of the public hospital board are so-called “health freedom” activists who oppose COVID vaccines and treatment protocols for the disease.

Courtesy of Sarasota Memorial Hospital

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Courtesy of Sarasota Memorial Hospital

Campus of Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, Florida. Three newly elected members of the public hospital board are so-called “health freedom” activists who oppose COVID vaccines and treatment protocols for the disease.

Courtesy of Sarasota Memorial Hospital

A Florida hospital has become the latest front for political activists keen to challenge COVID treatment protocols.

While most of the 6,000 hospitals in the United States are private, about 200 are controlled by publicly elected board members, according to Larry Gage, CEO of an industry group called America’s Essential Hospitals. Typically, these elections generally have nothing to do with national politics or culture war issues.

But with the opening of seats on the Sarasota Memorial Hospital board of trustees earlier this year, a group of political activists opposed to COVID protocols saw an opportunity. Today, the hospital has three new board members who question the effectiveness of vaccines and spread medical misinformation. Although they are a minority on the nine-person board, their victory threw the usually calm meetings of the hospital’s board of directors into chaos.

“Health freedom” activists

More than 200 people showed up for the first meeting of new members in late November, the largest turnout President Tramm Hudson had ever seen in his eight years on the board.

Micheila Matthew and more than a dozen self-proclaimed “health freedom activists” have demanded an investigation into the hospital’s handling at the height of the pandemic. Some had lost loved ones at the height of the pandemic and blamed the hospital. Others have criticized hospital management for ignoring non-traditional COVID treatments such as ivermectin, which studies have shown do not effectively treat COVID.

“We want answers,” Matthew said. “There will be no amnesty. You have failed.”

While similar public clashes have occurred elsewhere, the “health freedom” movement is particularly strong in Florida. Governor Ron DeSantis was one of the first heads of state to roll back mask and social distancing guidelines in 2020. Lately, he has used increasingly hostile rhetoric against vaccines.

“These people need to be heard. And we’re focused on us in Sarasota. We can be the change everyone needs in other health care systems,” said Bridgette Fiorucci, one of the new members of the Board of Directors at the November meeting.

Fiorucci, a registered nurse who worked on the front lines during the pandemic, told NPR in an interview that she had never received the COVID vaccine.

“There are a lot of people I know who have been injured or had adverse reactions,” Fiorucci said.

Although there have been extremely rare cases of serious side effects, scientific research has overwhelmingly shown that COVID vaccines are safe and effective. People are at a much higher risk of dying by not getting vaccinated.

In an interview with a Sarasota weekly, another new board member — also a registered nurse — dismissed the scientific consensus around vaccines as “unquestioned uniformity” that “violates all previous medical standards.”

Many of the hospital’s doctors and nurses spoke at the board meeting to push back against accusations that the hospital had failed the community.

“Doctors want to help people. That’s why we all do it,” said emergency physician Dr Sarah Temple.

“Despite our most heroic efforts – weekly meetings where we went through the latest evidence and looked for things that would actually work; the incredible teamwork, dedication and hard work I’ve seen from of my colleagues throughout the hospital – we just couldn’t save so many of our patients,” she said with a deep sigh.

The “medical freedom” movement has won numerous victories in local elections across the country, with groups like Stand For Health Freedom pushing the cause in the races for sheriff, school board and county clerk. Anti-vaccine candidates ran for public hospital boards in Washington state last year, but lost. The win at the Sarasota Memorial appears to be the first of its kind.

A retired doctor and outspoken conservative named Stephen Guffanti helped lead the campaign. In viral videos and public appearances, he tells a dramatic story of being falsely imprisoned at Sarasota Memorial Hospital while sick.

“They didn’t let me go,” Guffanti told a crowd at an event with Sarasota County Moms For America.

“It turns out that it’s more lucrative to have you die in the hospital than to go home,” he added, referring to an unfounded and widely debunked conspiracy theory that hospitals inflate costs. COVID deaths for profit.

Review of Hospital Practices

At their inaugural meeting, the new board members successfully pushed to open a review of the hospital’s COVID practices.

In an email, hospital spokesperson Kim Savage said the review will address “the specific and individual patient care concerns expressed at the recent meeting of the Board of Directors of hospital, including those shared by Dr. Guffanti”. She said management is “also looking at care throughout the pandemic, to review lessons learned and plan for the future.”

“We are an elected body,” said Hudson, the council’s chairman. “If citizens elect people who might have different points of view, […] I think we have to listen to the citizens,” he said.

While he doesn’t buy conspiracy theories about the hospital, Hudson says the review will put people at ease. But many others interviewed for this story were deeply troubled.

“This kind of health freedom propaganda rhetoric is not just an academic discussion. It endangers the lives of Americans, and in this case Floridians,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, an expert. in vaccines at Texas Children’s Hospital which has followed the medical freedom movement for years.

Hotez believes that 200,000 Americans died needlessly in the last half of 2021 and the beginning of 2022 because they were not vaccinated. “As a societal force, it’s a huge killer,” he said.

The hospital’s internal review is ongoing. The results will be made public by March next year.


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