Anchorage

Prominent COVID-19 vaccine skeptics to meet in Anchorage this week as Alaska’s case rates top the nation

Some of the country’s most prominent COVID-19 vaccine skeptics are expected in Anchorage this weekend as Alaska reports the nation’s highest COVID-19 case rates and record hospitalizations.

A group calling itself the Alaska Covid Alliance is holding the daylong “Alaska Early Treatment Medical Summit” on Saturday at ChangePoint Church, according to the event website.

The website did not list any contact information for the event.

Michael Chambers, an Anchorage artist and self-described libertarian, said Wednesday that he designed the event website and is coordinating ticket sales, but he declined to identify who he said were five or six other organizers.

“They want to stay anonymous for particular reasons,” Chambers said, later adding that the lack of transparency was due to “the current climate” surrounding COVID-19 and what he called the “medical-industrial complex.”

An Anchorage Assembly proposal for a citywide mask ordinance sparked two weeks of hearings marred at times by angry outbursts and frequent disruptions from unruly attendees — largely mask opponents — and occasional arrests. Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson and administration members have also openly questioned whether the city’s hospitals are telling the truth about COVID-19 and capacity issues.

ChangePoint Church is one of the largest churches in Anchorage and can hold over 1,000 people. The church for months has hosted a municipal COVID-19 testing site.

ChangePoint Pastor Tony Murrow said ChangePoint is not involved with the event, which was organized by an independent group that had rented the church’s facilities, according to reporting by Lex Treinen with Alaska Public Media, which first reported on Saturday’s summit.

Murrow referred Alaska Public Media’s questions to former acting Anchorage Health Department Director David Morgan. Morgan, reached by phone, said he was not an organizer but had helped facilitate the conference by sharing the contact information of some of the speakers, whom he said he knew from attending medical conferences, Alaska Public Media reported.

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The conference website says the event is “for anyone interested in information about early outpatient treatment or if you have questions about the vaccination and vaccinations for children.” But the speakers have all gained national reputations for questioning the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines or advocating treatments widely considered unproven by the medical community.

One guest, Dr. Robert Malone, was involved with the development of mRNA vaccines in the 1980s. That technology is used in the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

Malone now claims that the vaccines actually make the disease worse, something the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is false. A profile in The Atlantic magazine says that Malone is careful to distance himself from the “anti-vax” label, but he has appeared alongside people who have spread vaccine misinformation.

Malone’s wife, Jill, told Alaska Public Media that Malone would be attending the Anchorage conference but said she did not know who the organizers were.

The Idaho Medical Association earlier this month requested the state’s Board of Medicine investigate another speaker, Dr. Ryan Cole, for making “numerous public statements in 2020 and 2021, concerning COVID-19 that are at significant odds with commonly understood medical treatment of COVID-19 and fail to meet the community standard of care,” according to the association’s complaint. “We believe many of those statements to be profoundly wrong, unsupported by medical research and collected knowledge, and dangerous if followed by patients or members of the public.”

A third scheduled speaker, ophthalmologist Dr. Richard Urso, is a proponent of the disproven COVID-19 treatment drug hydroxychloroquine. He also helped start America’s Frontline Doctors, whose videos have been removed from some major social media sites for spreading false information about the vaccine. He was investigated and cleared for prescribing hydroxychloroquine to patients to treat COVID-19. A message left by Alaska Public Media for Urso was not returned before this story was published.

An as-yet unidentified “special guest” is also expected to attend Saturday’s conference.

Chambers said that person’s identity would be posted on the website Friday evening and an event flyer circulated Saturday will include a biography for the guest.

“They’re traveling under protection. They have security protection,” he said. “It’s not appropriate for us to put it out and put their life in jeopardy.”

Ilona Farr, a doctor at Alaska Family Medical Care clinic, who said she’s speaking at the event, told Alaska Public Media that the speakers reached out to local Anchorage organizers.

“They offered to come up about two weeks ago,” she said. “And we basically told him some places they could go, everything is being arranged by them pretty much.”

Farr told Alaska Public Media that the summit is not “anti-vax” but is designed to share information about COVID-19 treatments, vaccines and the origins of the disease. She said that includes ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic Z-pak, which she said she’s used to treat 700 patients, including herself, at her practice in Anchorage.

“I’m very, very upset that so many Alaskans have died needlessly because of this political nonsense from both sides, when we could be saving lives with some of these treatments,” she told Alaska Public Media.

Farr is the sister of state Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, an outspoken critic of vaccine and mask mandates who recently said she was prescribed ivermectin after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

Ivermectin, widely praised for its use in human parasitic treatment, is broadly considered an unproven treatment for COVID-19. Some poison control centers have reported ill effects after people treated themselves with high doses of veterinary versions of the drug normally used as a livestock dewormer.

A University of Alaska Anchorage public health expert who specializes in research on misinformation said the public should view alternative messaging about COVID-19 — and particularly vaccines — with caution.

The “purveyors of misinformation” have three goals, said Jennifer Meyer, an RN and assistant professor at the university: They want to downplay the threat of the virus, overstate the threat of the vaccine and play up people who go against the scientific consensus.

A conference like this might get national attention but could create a false equivalency between findings based on clinical trials and strong personal opinion or reports based on anecdotes or flawed studies, Meyer said.

“Right now, with the vaccine, all of this is preventable with vaccination and masking,” she said. “We can stop this. We have all the tools. We just have to use them.”

The conference begins Saturday morning with a four-hour session oriented toward Alaska medical workers and a four-hour afternoon session open to the public. Each session costs $20.

Chambers said about 150 medical personnel were expected to attend the morning event and about 300 people had registered for the afternoon session.

The website is soliciting donations for the Alaska Covid Alliance.

An article about Saturday’s summit initially appeared on Alaska Public Media. Reporting from that story is used here with permission.

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