Anchorage’s mayor walked onto the ChangePoint Alaska church stage Saturday at a one-day gathering featuring national skeptics of mainstream COVID-19 treatments and called their findings “the best science available.”
The Alaska Early Treatment Medical Summit featured doctors who have been marginalized by many in the medical community for questioning the efficacy of vaccines and advocating treatments considered unproven such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.
The mayor played a role in making the summit happen, according to an introduction by presenter Dr. Richard Urso, a Houston opthalmologist who was investigated and cleared for prescribing hydroxychloroquine.
“He’s helped organize a lot of what’s happening behind the scenes,” Urso told the crowd.
Bronson took the stage to cheers and applause and a loud shout of “FREEDOM!”
“Feels like an Assembly meeting,” Bronson joked, alluding to the series of often-unruly public hearings on a proposed mask mandate that stretched over two weeks and were punctuated by outbursts and multiple arrests.
A retired commercial pilot, the mayor opposes mask mandates and vaccine requirements. Many of the municipality’s top health officials resigned in the weeks after he took office in July.
Bronson told the audience that his personal doctor, who he said didn’t want to be named, urged his administration to bring the presenters to Anchorage. The mayor said he chose not to publicize any involvement in the summit.
“For political reasons, we didn’t want my fingerprints all over it,” he said.
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Bronson spokesman Corey Allen Young said in an email that the mayor and his staff were “approached with the event opportunity” but didn’t want to be involved with planning because of his political office. Bronson agreed to attend and speak, he said. No municipal employees were paid for their involvement and no municipal funds were used, Young said.
“Because some people disagree with the topics being discussed, they believe that Mayor Bronson should not be allowed to participate, and that should not be the case,” he wrote. “If Mayor Dave Bronson is the mayor of all people, he should be allowed to attend all types of public forums.”
Bronson — who said “This pandemic — if there was a pandemic — was over last summer,” while campaigning earlier this year — on Saturday said he does think the pandemic is real.
“How we handled it, history is going to judge these doctors, these professionals very well,” he said, referring to Saturday’s presenters. “And it’s going to judge other folks, health care professionals, quite poorly. I just decided I was gonna be on the right side of history on this.”
The mayor said he was “trying to find a political solution” based on science.
“And I’m just here to tell you after a long dinner and meeting with these folks, this is the best science available,” Bronson said.
Asked to clarify, Young on Monday said the mayor backs early treatments instead of “sending people home with no plan.”
Bronson in recent months has emphasized the use of monoclonal antibodies, a federally approved treatment regimen backed by public health authorities for use early in COVID-19 infections.
The summit was held as Alaska’s new COVID-19 case rate continues to lead the nation and the state’s vaccine rates have slowed since January, when no other state had vaccinated more people per capita. Hospitals say high numbers of COVID-positive patients are compromising their ability to care for everyone.
Anchorage RN Jennifer Meyer, a public health researcher who studies misinformation as an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, watched part of the summit via live stream.
Meyer said she saw “anti-vaxx tactics” and trigger words in use for years during Saturday afternoon’s sessions. She live-tweeted a series of fact-check critiques.
“I get concerned when vulnerable patients are listening to false claims and that might influence their health care decisions,” she said. “I feel sort of ethically bound to voice my concerns otherwise I’m not practicing nursing and nursing is a science-based profession, and so is public health.”
Meyer expressed shock when she heard Bronson praise the quality of the summit’s science.
“He is definitely outside of his expertise and I would really question what it is he is doing,” she said Monday. “I can’t pretend to know what his intentions are.”
About 1,200 people attended Saturday’s event, according to ticket coordinator Michael Chambers, an Anchorage artist who said he was one of a small group of organizers. Tickets cost $20 each.
“Not bad for 4 days notice!!” Chambers wrote in a message.
Presenters included infectious disease researcher Dr. Robert Malone, who claims to be the inventor of the mRNA vaccines when actually “the path to mRNA vaccines drew on the work of hundreds of researchers over more than 30 years,” according to a September article in the journal Nature. Malone has attracted criticism for spreading fear about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines and casting doubt on their efficacy.
Another presenter, Dr. Ryan Cole, is the subject of a state medical board investigation request by the Idaho Medical Association 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.”
Urso helped start America’s Frontline Doctors, described by The Intercept as a network of fringe health care providers who have made millions off of prescribing ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, as well as online consultations. Cole is also a member of the group, whose videos have been removed from some major social media sites for spreading false information about the vaccine.
Malone and others on Saturday urged the audience not to vaccinate children or recovered COVID-19 patients for the virus, contradicting state and federal health officials who say the risks from the vaccine are far lower than the risks from the virus and its potential for long-term medical problems.
Two Anchorage doctors also spoke: Illona Farr, a family medicine practitioner who recommends ivermectin for her patients and whose sister is outspoken mask and vaccine critic Sen. Lora Reinbold; and Hillside Family Medicine co-founder John Nolte.
A special guest was unveiled before the summit started: Chinese virologist Dr. Li-Meng Yan, who fled to the United States last year and is widely criticized for her contention that a government lab in China made the virus that can lead to COVID-19.
Bronson told the gathering Yan required security in the room Saturday “because the Chinese government is after her.”
A shadowy group called the Alaska Covid Alliance — its members want to remain anonymous, Chambers said last week — put on the Anchorage summit.
The group’s website on Monday included tips on alternative COVID-19 treatments, which doctors to see, and a list of the “3 Ds of Authority” — government deception, division, and destruction — including the question: “Is there evidence that this Covid Crisis is being used to destroy our common way of life and usher in a ‘New Normal’?”
Officials from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services last week said they had no plans to participate in Saturday’s summit.
“We will not be presenting at that conference. We have not been asked to present at that conference,” the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said at a briefing Thursday. “And we are constantly making sure that Alaskans have access to any and all information about COVID-19 about treatment options.”
Public health officials continue to say that vaccination is the single best way to prevent serious illness or death from the virus, and monoclonal antibodies are the only proven treatment for infected people, especially when administered as soon as possible.
They also say Saturday’s event lacked the vetting that typical medical conferences require of participants, including disclosing each speaker’s financial interests.
Typical conferences also require participants to clearly state when a treatment is an “off label” use not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, according to Dr. Tom Hennessy, an epidemiologist with the UAA College of Health. They must also provide accurate, science-based information.
“These are part of the standards for accreditation of continuing education for health care providers,” Hennessy wrote in an email. “Without such disclosures, presentations could become sales pitches or business ventures under the guise of medical education.”
-- Reporter Annie Berman contributed to this story.