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Hiltzik: Anti-vaxxers and their violent threats

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Last December, we reported on the threatening behavior of a group of anti-vaccine activists toward Kristina Lawson, the president of the Medical Board of California.

As Lawson recounted then, they surveilled her house, watched her children leave for school, then physically intimidated her at the garage of her business office.

That was all because she headed an agency tasked with keeping doctors from spreading misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic.

I can’t even begin to quantify the tweets, DMs, emails, etc along the lines of ‘see you at Nuremberg 2.0.’

— Virologist Angela Rasmussen

Now the group, which calls itself America’s Frontline Doctors, has stepped up its campaign against Lawson.

The group has released a 21-minute video that depicts Lawson in Nazi regalia, a whip in her hand and swastika on her shoulder, and shows a clip of the garage confrontation validating Lawson’s description.

The video implies that Lawson is comparable to dictators such as Stalin and Hitler, and describes her as the “primary suspect” in the “crime of hunting doctors who are on the front lines of critical care and scientific study.”

As she did in December, Lawson called out her accusers. “It is disturbing to be targeted by anti-science zealots and the people they seek to manipulate,” she said through a spokesman on Friday.

Since the video’s release a few days earlier, she said, “I have received a constant stream of emails and voicemail messages threatening me and demanding I resign from my position. As I shared previously, I will continue to do this work even when it is hard, and notwithstanding that there is an organized effort to scare me and other dedicated public servants away from it.”

It was evident even months ago that attacks on public officials who had advocated strong anti-pandemic measures were becoming more frequent and more extreme. Since then, the attacks have become even more threatening, their imagery and rhetoric more violent.

There’s talk of retribution for the offense of having advocated public health measures such as closing retails shops, restaurants, bars and schools. Consider this March 11 tweet by Stanford professor Jay Bhattacharya, a signatory to the Great Barrington Declaration, a document that promoted herd immunity against the pandemic rather than lockdowns.

A “coalition of regular people,” Bhattacharya wrote, “will hold accountable the people who pushed the lockdowns to answer for the destruction they caused.”

I asked Bhattacharya to explain the nature of the accountability he thought would be appropriate, and for his reaction to the violent or retributive imagery being mustered against advocates of stringent anti-pandemic measures. He replied that he deplored “the abuse that scientists and doctors have faced for working on COVID, whatever their point of view. Accountability is not a synonym for violence.”

At the Brownstone Institute, an offshoot of the Great Barrington Declaration project, an anti-lockdown post in December by institute founder and president Jeffrey A. Tucker was headlined “Who Will Be Held Responsible for This Devastation?” and illustrated with a picture of a guillotine. I asked Tucker to comment, but received no reply.

Anti-lockdown crusaders have made common cause with the anti-vaccine lobby, campaigning not only against social distancing measures but also vaccine mandates, and calling for public trials of vaccine and social distancing advocates.

Often they invoke the Nuremberg Trials of the 1940s, equating public health officials with the Nazi officials tried for war crimes after World War II, many of whom were sentenced to death.

“I can’t even begin to quantify the tweets, DMs, emails, etc along the lines of ‘see you at Nuremberg 2.0’—typically due to my advocacy for vaccines/NPIs or SARS-CoV-2 origins work,” virologist Angela Rasmussen, who has researched the origins of the COVID-19 virus, or SARS-CoV-2, tweeted last month. (“NPIs” are “nonpharmaceutical interventions” such as social distancing.)

Last year, a group of GOP legislators in Maine called for the death penalty for Gov. Janet Mills after she announced a vaccine mandate for healthcare workers. One legislator compared Mills to Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz doctor who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people.

“These were crimes against humanity,” the lawmaker said. “And what came out of that? The Nuremberg Code. The Nuremberg Trial. Informed consent is at the top and violating that is punishable by death.”

Overheated accusations of criminality are rampant in discussions of COVID-19 policy. On Amazon, one can buy a T-shirt reading “Arrest Fauci.” That’s a reference to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a top healthcare advisor to the Biden administration, who has been accused of lying to Congress about virus research funded by the institute. The accusation is false.

In a majestically uninformed rant against masking rules and vaccine mandates on the HBO talk show “Real Time With Bill Maher” in January, right-wing pundit Bari Weiss declared that “this is going to be remembered by the younger generation as a catastrophic moral crime.”

The notion underlying this fanatical rhetoric is that the lockdowns that were imposed in the first few months of the pandemic, and that continued in many schools through the 2020-2021 academic years, were treatments worse than the disease. A corollary is that “natural immunity” — a common misnomer for what should more accurately be termed “post-infection immunity” —is a reliable path to the herd immunity that would protect the population at large from the disease.

The argument of the herd immunity advocates, including the Great Barrington signatories, is that society would be much better off if we took stringent steps to protect the most vulnerable individuals, such as seniors and those with other medical weaknesses, from COVID-19 while allowing the infection to rip through the rest of the population. The Great Barrington Declaration labeled this as “focused protection.”

The idea was that younger and healthier people, especially children, could acquire immunity by catching the disease but bore little risk of dangerous consequences. This was the core contention of those who opposed school shutdowns.

There are quite a few problems with this approach. One is that in practical terms it’s impossible to wall off the vulnerable population from the rest of society. As epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz noted, relocating everyone over 60 who was living in a multigenerational household into specialized housing to protect them is such a massive task “it’s hard to see how this could ever have been achieved.”

Another is that while younger people and children are generally less likely to land in the hospital or die from COVID-19, they’re not immune. During the pandemic, 1,100 children 18 and younger have died from COVID-19 in the U.S., at least partially because of the assumption that they were relatively safe. If they had been deliberately exposed as subjects of policy, the toll would have been higher.

There is no evidence that a let-it-rip approach is anything like a foolproof path to herd immunity, or that it has produced a healthier outcome in communities that were purposefully lax about social distancing and mask wearing.

A recent report on the experience of Sweden, which was soft about anti-pandemic measures in the expectation that it would rapidly reach herd immunity, documented the folly of its approach.

Sweden’s death rate from COVID-19 was better than that in the U.S., Britain, and some other countries, but worse than the rate in Germany, Canada and Japan and much worse than its Nordic neighbors Denmark, Finland and Norway. If Sweden had Norway’s death rate, it would have suffered 4,429 deaths from COVID-19, instead of more than 18,500.

The same phenomenon can be seen in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the COVID-19 death rate in Florida, which has boasted about remaining wide open during the pandemic, has reached 341 per 100,000 people. In California, where major population centers imposed much stricter social distancing measures, the rate is 223 per 100,000.

To put this in perspective, if California had Florida’s death rate, it would have experienced about 48,200 more deaths than the 88,200 on record. If Florida had California’s rate, it would have suffered 25,600 fewer deaths than the 73,400 recorded.

It’s true that Florida has a higher percentage of residents 65 and older than California. But it’s also true that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis bragged about taking special measures to protect its seniors. Obviously his Great Barrington-esque approach has failed miserably.

The major problem with the herd immunity approach is that it has become clear that the only path to a normal post-pandemic society is through vaccination. Yet the anti-lockdown crowd is also anti-vaccine. When those options are eliminated, all that remains in its arsenal is conspiracy-mongering, which the Frontline group offers enthusiastically amid its pseudoscientific claptrap and wild accusations of criminality.

Fauci, Walensky, Lawson and Biden are “not leaders, but leeches,” its video says, “bleeding our nation into fatal submission” to put billions of dollars into the pockets of vaccine companies such as Pfizer.

The Frontline Doctors video was posted on the organization’s website on March 31. A word about this group: It became notorious after staging a July 2020 rally in Washington touting hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial pill, as a “cure” for COVID-19, despite the lack of any scientific evidence for its efficacy.

One of the speakers at that rally was Dr. Joseph Ladapo, a hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin promoter who has questioned the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines — and who DeSantis appointed last year as the state surgeon general.

Since the video accuses Lawson of committing a crime, it’s proper to note that Simone Gold, a California-licensed doctor who founded the frontline organization and plays a starring role in the video, pleaded guilty on March 3 to a federal criminal count for joining the mob that stormed into the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

She is scheduled for sentencing on her misdemeanor plea June 16, when she will face up to a year in jail.

Although Lawson is the prime target of the video, it also attacks CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, Fauci and President Biden (Biden is called “Brandon,” a schoolyard taunt beloved of the far right). Walensky and Fauci are caricatured in an animation as slavering ghouls.

The video promotes hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, an anti-parasitic medicine, as treatments for COVID-19, even though both have been shown by medical trials to be useless against the disease.

Among the charges the video makes against Lawson is that the California Medical Board endorsed vaccinating pregnant women against COVID-19. In reality, that advisory reflected advice from the CDC and the California Department of Public Health that the vaccine is safe for pregnant women.

The video cites a June 17, 2021, paper in the New England Journal of Medicine that it says points to an elevated risk of spontaneous abortions, or miscarriages, among vaccinated women. In fact, the paper found no difference in “adverse pregnancy and neonatal outcomes in persons vaccinated against Covid-19″ compared with rates prior to the pandemic.

A subsequent paper found no elevated risk of spontaneous abortions after vaccination, adding to “the accumulating evidence about the safety of mRNA COVID-19 vaccination in pregnancy,” according to the authors. (The mRNA vaccines are those made by Pfizer and Moderna.)

As we observed in December, it’s hard to understand why the Frontline Doctors organization has focused on Lawson, who leads one of 70 medical and osteopathic boards in the U.S., unless it’s because the California board has disciplinary power over Gold and Christopher Rake, a California-licensed physician who stars in the video.

Many of those state boards have signaled agreement with a warning issued last year by the Federation of State Medical Boards that “physicians who generate and spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation or disinformation are risking disciplinary action by state medical boards, including the suspension or revocation of their medical license.”

Plainly, the basic goal of the crusaders against vaccines and other anti-pandemic measures is intimidation. Their claims to have a better approach are based on misinformation, misrepresentation and ideology, so what else do they have?





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