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In Florida, 'health freedom' activists exert influence over a major hospital

Sarasota Memorial Hospital's campus in Sarasota, Fla. Three newly-elected members of the public hospital board are so-called "health freedom" activists who are opposed to COVID vaccines and treatment protocols for the illness.
Courtesy of Sarasota Memorial Hospital
Sarasota Memorial Hospital's campus in Sarasota, Fla. Three newly-elected members of the public hospital board are so-called "health freedom" activists who are opposed to COVID vaccines and treatment protocols for the illness.

A Florida hospital has become the latest front for political activists eager to challenge protocols for treating COVID.

While most of the 6,000 hospitals in the United States are privately-run, about 200 are controlled by publicly-elected board members, according to Larry Gage, former president of the National Association of Public Hospitals. Typically, those elections usually have nothing to do with national politics or culture war issues.

But with seats opening on the Sarasota Memorial Hospital's board earlier this year, a group of political activists opposed to COVID protocols saw an opportunity. Now, the hospital has three new board members who question the effectiveness of vaccines and spread medical misinformation. While they're a minority on the nine-person board, their victory has thrown the hospital board's typically quiet meetings into chaos.

"Health freedom" activists

More than 200 people showed up to the new members' first meeting in late November, the largest turnout that chairman Tramm Hudson had ever seen in his eight years on the board.

Micheila Matthew and more than a dozen self-described "health freedom activists" demanded an investigation into the hospital's management during the worst of the pandemic. Some had lost loved ones during the peak of the pandemic and blamed the hospital. Others blasted the hospital's leadership for ignoring non-mainstream COVID treatments such as ivermectin, which studies have established do not effectively treat COVID.

"We want answers," Matthew said. "There will be no amnesty. You failed."

While similar public clashes have happened elsewhere, the "health freedom" movement is especially strong in Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis was one of first state leaders to roll back mask and social distancing guidelines in 2020. Lately, he's used rhetoric that's increasingly hostile to vaccines.

"These people need to be heard. And we have a spotlight on us in Sarasota. We can be the change that everyone else needs in other health care systems," said Bridgette Fiorucci, one of the new board members, at the November meeting.

Fiorucci, a registered nurse who has worked on the front lines during the pandemic, told NPR in an interview that she's never gotten the COVID vaccine.

"There are many people that I know that have been injured or have had adverse reactions," Fiorucci said.

While there have been extremely rare cases of serious side effects, the scientific research has overwhelmingly shown that COVID vaccines are safe and effective. People stand a far higher risk of dying by going unvaccinated.

In an interview with a weekly newspaper in Sarasota, another new board member – also a registered nurse – dismissed the scientific consensus around the vaccines as "unquestioned uniformity" that "violates all previous medical standards."

Many of the hospital's doctors and nurses spoke up at the board meeting to push back against accusations that the hospital failed the community.

"Doctors want to help people. That is the reason we all do this," said Dr. Sarah Temple, an emergency medicine physician.

"Despite our most heroic efforts – weekly meetings where we scoured the newest evidence and looked for things that would actually work; the incredible teamwork, dedication, and hard work that I saw from my colleagues throughout the hospital – we just couldn't save so many of our patients," she said with a deep sigh.

The "medical freedom" movement has claimed numerous victories in local elections around the country, with groups like Stand For Health Freedom pushing the cause in sheriff, school board, and county clerk races. Anti-vaccine candidates ran for public hospital boards in Washington State last year, but lost. The victory at Sarasota Memorial appears to be the first of its kind.

A retired doctor and outspoken conservative named Stephen Guffanti helped lead the campaign. In viral videos and public appearances, he tells a dramatic story of being falsely imprisoned at Sarasota Memorial Hospital while he was sick.

"They wouldn't let me leave," Guffanti told a crowd at an event with Sarasota County Moms For America.

"It turns out that it's more lucrative to have you die in the hospital than go home," he added, a reference to an unfounded and widely debunked conspiracy theory that hospitals inflate COVID deaths for profit.

Review of the hospital's practices

At their inaugural meeting, the new board members successfully pushed to open a review of the hospital's COVID practices.

In an email, hospital spokesperson Kim Savage said the review will look into "specific, individual patient care concerns expressed at the recent hospital board meeting, including those shared by Dr. Guffanti." She said the leadership is also "taking a broader look at care throughout the pandemic, to review the lessons learned and plan for the future."

"We are an elected body," said Hudson, the board chair. "If the citizens elect folks that might have some alternative views, [...] I think that we should listen to the citizens," he said.

While he doesn't buy into the conspiracy theories about the hospital, Hudson says the review will put people at ease. But many others interviewed for this story were deeply disturbed.

"This kind of health freedom propaganda rhetoric, it's not just an academic discussion. It's endangering the lives of Americans, and in this case Floridians," said Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at Texas Children's Hospital who has followed medical freedom movements for years.

Hotez estimates that 200,000 Americans needlessly died in the last half of 2021 and early 2022 because they weren't vaccinated . "As a societal force, that's an enormous killer," he said.

The hospital's internal review is underway now. Findings will be made public by March of next year.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 20, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story misidentified Larry Gage's title. He is the former president of the National Association of Public Hospitals.
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Zach Hirsch