Some rural Oregon health workers and doctor fuel vaccine mistrust



As hospitals in Oregon fill up with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients and the death toll rises, health officials trying to overcome misinformation keep repeating the same advice.

“Talk to your family doctor,” have advised public health advocates across the country, hoping that a reliable source will provide factual information about the risks of a widespread disease and the effectiveness of available vaccines.

But in rural eastern Oregon, distrust of government initiatives runs so deep that even some primary care providers may advise eligible patients against getting the vaccine, according to a region lawmaker.

Rep. Mark Owens is a Republican who has pushed back Democratic Governor Kate Brown and state health officials over vaccine requirements for healthcare workers and school staff, arguing the rules are a overbreadth that will only turn vaccine skeptics into outright refusals.

“A lot of them are already anti-government,” Owens said in a recent interview. “Forcing that won’t work.”

Unlike the majority of the inhabitants of his neighborhood, Owens is vaccinated. He comes from Harney County, where only 46% of health workers are vaccinated, the lowest rate in the state. When the county judge recently signed a post on the local government’s Facebook page calling for vaccination and masking as a means of being a “frontline hero,” outrage dominated responses. Some commentators have claimed that a doctor advised them against vaccines before the message disappeared.

“There’s only one doctor I know of in Harney County who advises against this, but I think it’s happening elsewhere,” Owens said. “He’s my doctor, so maybe I should sit down and ask him why.

Harney County has about 7,500 residents and few primary care providers. Several independent sources have identified Dr Thomas Fitzpatrick as a doctor believed to advise patients against COVID-19 vaccination in the tight-knit community. The OPB asked Burns’ doctor if the claim was true.

“Not necessarily,” Fitzpatrick said. “I tell them they have to read both sides and make a decision. I’m against children, that’s for sure. Corn [patients] have to make a decision for themselves.

The doctor declined to say if he asks his patients to do their own research when seeking other types of medical advice, and he also did not specify what sources he tells people to turn to for get information about vaccines.

“There are plenty of sites on both sides. Find out, for example, who invented the vaccine, find the people who asked the questions. There are big names everywhere asking for this, you just have to look them up, ”said Fitzpatrick, who, according to records, graduated from medical school in 1987 and has been licensed to practice in Oregon since 1990.

When asked if he recommends COVID-19 vaccination to patients, Fitzpatrick said, “Some of my older patients have health issues, I have them.”

At least 6,870 Oregonians under the age of 60 have been hospitalized with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to data from the Oregon Health Authority. In central and eastern Oregon, the sickest patients end up at the St. Charles Health System, where, as of September 3, people with COVID-positive who were not fully vaccinated were filling about a quarter of their lives. all beds in the health system.

In the August 31 images released by the health care system, a COVID patient is not sure exactly how many days she spent in the hospital. Identified only by her first name, Stéphanie’s voice is weak, every word is an apparent struggle for her.

“I made a terrible mistake.” she whispers. “I should have been vaccinated. It was hell.

In this YouTube screenshot, Stephanie lies down on her side for easier breathing. She is identified as an unvaccinated positive COVID patient in an August 31, 2021 video produced and released by St. Charles Health System.

Emily Cureton / OPB

Since vaccines became widely available to Oregonians last spring, 88% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in St. Charles have not been fully immunized, according to the Health System website. Twenty-four of the unvaccinated patients on Sept. 3 were under 60, compared with a single fully vaccinated patient in the younger age group.

“It’s disheartening,” said Dr. Cynthia Maree, infectious disease expert and medical director of infection prevention services in the healthcare system. “It really is a preventable disease at this point.”

People who have not been vaccinated should feel empowered to ask questions before making a choice, she said, pointing to the COVID-19 Real-Time Learning Network as a credible source of information.

“I am very sad for the people who have been given the wrong information because I believe they are putting themselves, their family members and their community in extreme danger; and they are preventing us from moving forward and out of the pandemic, ”Maree said.

For the vast majority of people 12 and older, she said the science was now clear:

“If you do not have a contraindication such as a severe allergic reaction to any component of the vaccine, it is recommended at this point to get vaccinated and protect yourself against COVID-19 disease. “

If Maree knew a fellow doctor with doubts, she said, she would like to have a conversation with them “to see if we could get to the root of the origin of the misunderstandings … so we could all be on the same page. wavelength when making recommendations to our patients.

Last month, the Federation of State Medical Boards warned that doctors who disseminate misinformation about vaccines risk discipline or loss of their license to practice medicine.

The Oregon State Medical Council declined to respond if it was investigating doctors for spreading misinformation about vaccines. The medical commission itself does not initiate any disciplinary action against doctors. Instead, it investigates complaints from hospitals, patients, and others. Fitzpatrick, Burns’ doctor, does not have a disciplinary history from the state medical board, according to state records.

A council spokeswoman said that if it receives a complaint about doctors spreading misinformation about vaccines or encouraging people to try unproven and dangerous drugs to cure COVID-19, the council would consider “whether the license holder has used the degree of care, skill and diligence that is employed by ordinarily prudent physicians in the same or similar circumstances. Last year, the council suspended the license of a Polk County doctor who refused to wear a mask and similarly encouraged his patients.

The video St. Charles posted this week refers to anti-vaccine protesters who recently picketed outside Bend Hospital. Inside the hospital, two exasperated doctors are talking to the camera. Dr Bryan Harris said he has cared for more than 100 COVID patients in Redmond and Bend.

“There’s this voice at the back that says it’s preventable, why did this person put themselves in this position?” Harris said. “The loudest voice is that we are supposed to take care of everyone. “

Amelia Templeton of the OPB contributed to this report.


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