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'Vigilante treatments': Anti-vaccine groups push people to leave ICUs

As the anti-vaccine movement escalates its rhetoric, doctors warn that they're dealing with the fallout: "They’re starting to target people, the messengers — nurses and doctors."
Anti-vaccine and pro-ivermectin Facebook groups have been imploring followers to stay away from emergency rooms and hospitals.Nathan Howard / Getty Images

Anti-vaccine Facebook groups have a new message for their community members: Don’t go to the emergency room, and get your loved ones out of intensive care units.

Consumed by conspiracy theories claiming that doctors are preventing unvaccinated patients from receiving miracle cures or are even killing them on purpose, some people in anti-vaccine and pro-ivermectin Facebook groups are telling those with Covid-19 to stay away from hospitals and instead try increasingly dangerous at-home treatments, according to posts seen by NBC News over the past few weeks.

The messages represent an escalation in the mistrust of medical professionals in groups that have sprung up in recent months on social media platforms, which have tried to crack down on Covid misinformation. And it’s something that some doctors say they’re seeing manifest in their hospitals as they have filled up because of the most recent delta variant wave.

“We were down to four Covid patients two months ago. In this surge, we’ve had 40 to 50 patients with Covid on four different ICU services, 97 percent of them unvaccinated,” said Wes Ely, an ICU doctor and professor of medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “We were making headway, and now we’re just losing really, really badly. There’s something that’s happening on the internet, and it’s dramatically increasing steam.”

Those concerns echo various local reports about growing threats and violence directed toward medical professionals. In Branson, Missouri, a medical center recently introduced panic buttons on employee badges because of a spike in assaults. Violence and threats against medical professionals have recently been reported in Massachusetts, Texas, Georgia and Idaho.

While Covid misinformation has been a persistent problem since the start of the pandemic, the introduction of vaccines has invigorated the anti-vaccine community and sparked a renewed push to find and promote alternative treatments — some of which are potentially hazardous. 

Others are turning away from hospitals altogether. In recent weeks, some anti-vaccine Facebook groups and conspiracy theory influencers on the encrypted messaging app Telegram have offered instructions on how to get family members released from the hospital, usually by insisting they be transferred into hospice care, and have recorded those they’ve successfully removed from hospitals for viral videos. 

Some people in groups that formed recently to promote the false cure ivermectin, an anti-parasite treatment, have claimed extracting Covid patients from hospitals is pivotal so that they can self-medicate at home with ivermectin. But as the patients begin to realize that ivermectin by itself is not effective, the groups have begun recommending a series of increasingly hazardous at-home treatments, such as gargling with iodine, and nebulizing and inhaling hydrogen peroxide, calling it part of a “protocol.”

On Tuesday, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America put out a warning against nebulizing hydrogen peroxide.

With Covid cases rising among people who refuse to get vaccinated, and disinformation continuing to spread on social media, anti-vaccine groups have given rise to what Harvard Medical School physician Aditi Nerurkar calls “vigilante medicine,” wherein patients are deferring potentially lifesaving care from doctors to try unproven cures pushed on Facebook.

“It’s vigilante medicine: medicine being practiced by laypeople who are reading groups created by other laypeople in echo chambers and silos that, likely, someone in the anti-vax movement is profiting from,” she said.

Facebook groups dedicated to purported miracle cures and at-home therapies, like ivermectin, have become de facto hubs for anti-vaccine content in the last month.

As Facebook has cracked down on groups and content with explicit anti-vaccine names and messages, groups with names like “Ivermectin MD Team” have popped up in their place, garnering tens of thousands of followers. In these pro-ivermectin spaces, endorsements of the vaccine are roundly mocked or viewed as a government plot, while unproven drugs are touted almost exclusively as alternatives.

A Facebook spokesperson said in an emailed statement: "We remove content that attempts to buy, sell, or donate for Ivermectin. We also enforce against any account or group that violates our COVID-19 and vaccine policies, including claims that Ivermectin is a guaranteed cure or guaranteed prevention, and we don’t allow ads promoting Ivermectin as a treatment for COVID-19."

Anti-vaccination activists falsely believe that ivermectin is a secret miracle cure for Covid. Prescriptions for the drug have skyrocketed, despite some pharmacists refusing to fill them. Horse owners are facing a shortage of dewormers, which contains ivermectin, because anti-vaccine influencers and Facebook groups have falsely claimed that the drugs are effectively the same.

Many users in the Ivermectin groups push conspiracy theories about how Food and Drug Administration-recommended treatments frequently used by doctors and nurses in hospitals are secretly killing patients, and some have implied doctors and nurses are killing patients on purpose so they can receive government payouts.

Conspiracy theorists have pushed the idea that the antiviral drug remdesivir and the use of ventilators are “drowning” unvaccinated Covid patients. In reality, unvaccinated patients are dying of the debilitating effects Covid has on the lungs.

“There’s no evidence whatsoever that works and it could potentially have toxicity,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical adviser to the president, said last month about ivermectin.

Still, viral rumors have led some Covid patients and their families to insist on receiving ivermectin from doctors who refuse to prescribe it as a treatment in their hospitals.

Earlier this month, QAnon supporters barraged a Chicago-area hospital with threats after a fellow QAnon supporter, Veronica Wolski, asked for and was not administered ivermectin. 

Wolski, who was not vaccinated, later died in the hospital after three weeks of fighting Covid.

Nerurkar said patients are often understandably seeking immediate answers and relief once they contract Covid, but unlike snake oil and false miracle drugs, proven treatments for the virus can take days to be effective, “which has been a source of great frustration for clinicians, and also for patients and families.”

“When we’re feeling stressed, we need a target of that stress. For a long time, initially, the target might have been Covid,” she said. “But now, it’s no longer that. With the delta variant, and the stress of it has been so great that we are now no longer even looking at the virus and saying, ‘That is our common enemy,’ which is really how it should be. Instead, they’re starting to target people, the messengers — nurses and doctors.”

They’re starting to target people, the messengers — nurses and doctors.

Dr. Aditi Nerurkar

Ely said one particular patient who had been misinformed stuck with him. The woman who had Covid arrived in his ICU about five months pregnant. Ely said the woman was not vaccinated and refused any treatments that would help fight the virus.

“Why? Because, to her, it’s not real,” he said. “So now we’re dealing with a woman in the ICU, the baby too young to live. We’ve got to make it several more weeks for the baby to be viable.”

Ely said he takes the same approach with every patient who is skeptical of doctors or Covid. 

He said he kneels down at his patients’ bedside to make sure that he’s not standing above them, so he can talk to them “from a place of reverence.”

“When I’m kneeling down with them, holding their hand, I look in their eyes, and I say, ‘Tell me. Tell me what you’re afraid of. I am your doctor. I want to help you. I’m here to serve you.' And I tell them 'it always is a privilege to serve you,’” Ely said.

“So, I kneel down. I look her in her eyes. I hold her hand. I tell her, ‘I’m hearing you. I’m not going to leave. I’m not going to abandon you.’ But there are some people that you can’t get on the other side of it,” he said. “When people get this sick, they are very likely going to die, and almost all pregnant moms in this situation lose their babies. So we have two people dying without treatment for Covid.”

Ely said this patient was not alone, and that some of those who refuse the vaccine “just keep denying until they’re dying.”

“And let me say, this is not rare. You asked me what I’m hearing, and this is happening. Real time. Right now.”