Moving on from pandemic requires facing hard facts

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category icon Editorials, Opinion

As we enter our third winter with COVID-19 hanging over our heads, it’s easy to forget the feeling so many of us experienced during the height of the pandemic when community members amped up on a widespread disinformation campaign directed their fear and rage toward public officials trying to protect the entire community from a highly contagious, airborne virus capable of destroying our lungs, harming our hearts, wrecking our immune system, damaging our brains and attacking the lining of our blood vessels

Locally, some of the most shocking examples of this nationwide, coordinated attack on public health measures meant to prevent the spread of COVID occurred during normally sedate school board meetings. Proud Boys showed up to Washougal School Board meetings. Unhinged people screamed outside the windows of Camas School Board meetings. In the spring of 2021, as school officials were trying to figure out how to safely bring thousands of students back to the classroom, dozens of Camas-Washougal citizens showed up to school board meetings to rail against mask mandates, remote schooling and COVID vaccines. 

Scott Miller, a physician assistant and founder of Miller Family Pediatrics in Washougal, came to a Camas School Board meeting on May 10, 2021. Dressed in a smart suit and refusing to wear a face covering — a direct violation of state, county and school district policies in place at that time — Miller unloaded on the school board members, ranting against mask mandates and insisting ivermectin, an antiparasitic medication, was “the cure” for COVID. 

Miller’s tirade against public health measures would have been forgettable in the face of the chaos happening across the country during the spring of 2021, had it not been for the fact that the Washougal health care provider was actually practicing what he preached — prescribing ivermectin to patients he never even examined and taking his rage out on local doctors and nurses working back-breaking shifts during the worst of the pandemic. 

A recently released Washington Medical Commission report details Miller’s actions during the spring of 2021. 

“Rather than acting as a go-between for these patients and their families, (Miller) consistently contradicted the diagnoses and treatments of specialists and hospitalists in those fields for those patients,” the Commission stated in its report. “Without examining the patients, and without the training to question the treatment providers, (Miller’s) treatment recommendations are suspect.”

The Commission recently suspended Miller’s physician assistant license indefinitely (see related story at The Post-Record online at The Washougal health care provider charged with promoting unfounded COVID treatments and verbally harassing medical professionals, is fighting the Commission’s decision in court and could someday take steps to get his license reinstated. 

We realize most people would like to move on from the pandemic and forget the virus is still out there, still hospitalizing nearly 35,000 Americans every single week, still ramping up again as the winter holidays approach.  

But the fact is that ignoring this chapter of our collective history will do more harm than good. 

We must use that 20-20 hindsight to better understand why so many of us were willing to reject our scientists, doctors, researchers and public health officials in favor of easily debunked disinformation. 

Why were so many willing to fight doctors and nurses for access to unfounded COVID treatments like ivermectin while adamantly refusing COVID vaccines, the one thing known to actually reduce the risk of severe COVID and COVID-related deaths?

COVID disinformation didn’t just divide our communities and cause uproars during school board meetings, it actually led to thousands of preventable deaths. 

A Yale university study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research in September 2022, showed Republicans — those most likely to believe the COVID disinformation being pumped out on right-leaning media channels like Fox and in far-right echo chambers on Facebook and other social media sites — had far more excess deaths once the COVID vaccines were introduced in the spring of 2021. 

Political affiliation has emerged as a potential risk factor for COVID-19, amid evidence that Republican-leaning counties have had higher COVID-19 death rates than Democrat- leaning counties and evidence of a link between political party affiliation and vaccination views,” the study’s authors noted. 

We now know, thanks to reporting by The Intercept, that “far-right health care companies made millions prescribing unproven COVID remedies.” 

We also know that ivermectin — the drug Miller prescribed to COVID patients for “head lice” to get past pharmacy alerts, according to the Washington Medical Commission’s report — is not a “miracle” or a “cure” as Miller and other health care providers who should have known better claimed. Rather, according to the results of a huge, double-blind clinical trial published in The New England Journal of Medicine in May 2022, showed no signs of helping treat COVID-19 or of preventing COVID-positive patients from being hospitalized. As one of the study’s co-authors told The New York Times of ivermectin’s effect on COVID-19, “There’s really no sign of any benefit.”

It will be tough for many members of our community — especially those who truly believed they were helping their loved ones when they fought doctors and nurses for unproven “miracle cures” like ivermectin being touted by health care providers they trusted — to accept these facts. 

But to truly move past the deep divisions that fractured our community during the height of the pandemic, we must hold those who pushed disinformation accountable for their actions and begin to promote the benefits of public health measures (masking, vaccinating, ventilating and purifying our indoor air, ensuring paid sick days for those who need to stay home when they’re ill, etc.) that can actually stop the spread of COVID-19 and help us finally move past this deadly pandemic and the divisions it helped sow.