Local is ‘where the trust is’: Doctors battle COVID misinformation in Idaho Capitol
Ryan Suppe, Idaho Statesman
Published at | Updated at
BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — During November’s three-day legislative session, Idaho lawmakers pushed a number of bills based on COVID-19 misinformation, according to a series of reports issued by the Idaho Medical Association.
Lawmakers’ claims included one that coronavirus antibodies and natural immunity provide as much protection from infections as the COVID-19 vaccine. Another claim was that people who are vaccinated are just as likely to spread the virus as those who are not vaccinated.
The Idaho Medical Association (IMA), the state’s largest nonprofit trade organization for physicians, last month sent all 105 Idaho legislators three white papers, published before and after the session, Idaho Press first reported. The papers corrected common misunderstandings and misinformation about coronavirus immunity and vaccines, including those touted by the lawmakers.
Soon the association will release two additional reports, said Susie Keller, IMA CEO.
“It became very apparent to our physicians, and increasingly so, that the public was being presented with a lot of misinformation, and sometimes disinformation, about COVID-19 and were using that to make decisions about how they should react to the pandemic,” Keller told the Idaho Statesman by phone.
REPORTS CORRECT THE RECORD ON NATURAL IMMUNITY
IMA, which has more than 3,500 professional members, formed a small committee of doctors from around the state last fall, with the goal of correcting COVID-19 misinformation — among both patients and other physicians.
The public health committee began publishing short reports in October. The first covered natural immunity, and the second, published in November, focused on antibody testing.
“We wanted to do a deeper dive on: What does the presence of antibodies mean and what could be a guide for the public and legislators to know about that when considering policy?” Keller said.
Coincidentally, when the Idaho Legislature reconvened in November after recessing for several months, both natural immunity and antibody testing surfaced in debates, as well as legislation related to COVID-19 vaccine requirements.
That’s when the public health committee took on a third function: trying to educate lawmakers, in addition to patients and physicians. The committee published one report in response to doubts from Republican lawmakers about the vaccine’s merits. Then the association shared the reports with legislators.
The IMA’s new reports will tackle ivermectin, the anti-parasite drug that has been lauded, often by people opposed to vaccines, as a treatment for COVID-19, going against the recommendations of U.S. health officials and the World Health Organization. The other report will focus on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, a database designed as an early warning system to detect vaccine injuries.
Dr. Ted Epperly, a longtime Boise doctor, joined the IMA committee after he lost his seat on the Central District Health board. Epperly suggested that his removal from the board, by newly elected Ada County commissioners, was politically motivated. The 41-year doctor, who was on the board for 15 years, had advocated for mask wearing and other preventative measures.
Epperly warned against politicizing the pandemic, a trend that helped fuel misinformation. Many Idaho legislators “were confused, quite frankly,” about the realities of COVID-19, he said. Epperly was replaced on the board by Dr. Ryan Cole, who has helped spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.
“There’s danger in that if there’s not some entity that’s standing up in the community, to at least try to make sure the appropriate medical and public health information is getting out,” Epperly said.
IDAHO LAWMAKERS PROPOSE BILLS BASED ON BAD INFORMATION
Three bills proposed during November’s session would have required that employers grant COVID-19 vaccine exemptions to workers who present a test showing positive coronavirus antibodies. One of the bills, sponsored by Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, passed the House but ultimately died without a vote in the Senate.
Antibodies, the proteins used by the immune system to fight viruses, may indicate whether someone has been infected or vaccinated against the coronavirus, but an antibody test “does not tell you whether you are immune to the virus that causes COVID-19,” a November IMA report said.
Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, proposed a bill that would codify a natural immunity exemption for COVID-19 vaccines. A Senate panel introduced the bill but did not vote on it. The legislation stated that a worker would be exempt from a required COVID-19 vaccine if they provide evidence of a COVID-19-positive DNA test or a positive antibody test from a federally certified clinical testing lab.
The medical association’s October report said that data on the strength and durability of natural immunity continues to evolve. Some people who have recovered from COVID-19 “appear to have strong immunity that lasts for many months,” but natural immunity is unpredictable because “some people develop more protection for a longer period of time than others.”
“For those who had COVID, we do not know how long the protection will last and how effective it will be against future types of the disease,” the report said.
Keller noted that the October report was published before omicron became the predominant coronavirus strain, and more information is being collected on natural immunity levels among those infected with the new variant.
The most recent Idaho Medical Association report was published as a direct response to a statement by Sen. Kelly Anthon, R-Burley. During a November committee meeting, Anthon asked Ken McCLure, an attorney and lobbyist who was testifying against a bill on behalf of IMA, to clarify the effectiveness of vaccines.
“What I understand in my limited knowledge of the COVID-19 vaccine is that once you receive it, you can still transmit COVID-19,” Anthon said. “So I say to myself, what does it matter?”
McClure responded, “The risk of transmission is significantly different between vaccinated and unvaccinated populations.”
IMA’s later report underscored that people who are fully vaccinated are “significantly less likely” to infect other members of their household than those who are not vaccinated.
Statements that contain absolutes are typically “red flags” when it comes to science, Keller said. The IMA public health committee made a point to date the white papers, because as the virus evolves, so do recommendations from medical experts.
“True scientists will say, ‘This is what we know now. There’s still some things we don’t (know),” Keller said.
COVID-19 INFO FROM LOCAL DOCTORS BREEDS TRUST
Legislation targeting vaccine requirements is expected to resurface in the upcoming session, which starts Monday. Multiple sources said that amid unfounded claims, local, trusted doctors should be one of the primary sources of information.
“Having that local element really does make a difference,” Keller said.
Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, told the Statesman by phone that early in the pandemic, inconsistent information from national medical experts — such as recommendations on masking and vaccines for pregnant woman — led to questions about the reliability of sources. But local physicians maintain trust.
Winder said the Idaho Medical Association’s reports are “very useful.”
“The best politics is the local politics,” Winder said. “I think it’s important … that the medical community does communicate with their elected representatives in the Legislature at the local level, because I think that’s where the trust is. That’s where the awareness is and that’s where, usually, the relationships are.”