COVID

This hospital tried to save a COVID patient. Conspiracy theorists targeted it.

What happened at the hospital is a dramatic example of how hostility toward the medical establishment has flourished during the pandemic.

Joanna Slater
Valley Regional Hospital is seen in the Claremont, New Hampshire, on Feb. 8, 2022. Washington Post photo by Joanna Slater


CLAREMONT, N.H. β€” It was still dark when Jocelyn Caple pulled into the parking lot of Valley Regional Hospital one morning in early December.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, COVID hospitalizations in New Hampshire were at a record high. The small community hospital Caple leads was full, its employees exhausted.

As soon as Caple arrived inside, a colleague told her that something strange was happening. Calls were flooding into the switchboard, and senior staff members were receiving a flurry of voice messages and emails to their work accounts.

The callers were impassioned and vehement, demanding that the hospital begin treating a COVID patient in its care with ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug. As the day went on, the volume of calls grew so large that the hospital shut down its main number.

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That morning was only the beginning. The calls and emails β€” mobilized by a group calling itself the Truth Seekers 88 β€” continued for more than a week. The hospital limited access to one entrance, and local police posted a cruiser there 24 hours a day.

Several of the communications were threatening, Caple said, including a voice mail in which a caller warned of a “military extraction” of the patient from the hospital. Nine days after the calls and emails began, she said, the hospital received a bomb threat for the first time in its history.

Caple and her staff were deeply shaken. “No matter what, when things heat up at work, we can’t just close up shop and go home,” said Caple, 57, a pathologist by training who became chief executive of the hospital in 2020. “I was angry that anyone would endeavor to make my staff’s jobs any harder or more stressful than they already are.”

What happened at the hospital, located in the town of Claremont, is a dramatic example of how hostility toward the medical establishment has flourished during the pandemic, encouraged by misinformation campaigns, anti-vaccine activists and conspiracy theorists.

While doctors and nurses say they’re accustomed to encountering anger from patients and their relatives, the level of distrust surrounding COVID and its treatment represents a new and disturbing phenomenon. It’s an environment in which some families view clinical decisions with suspicion, leading to threats and lawsuits.

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Jack Lyons, a critical care physician in St. Cloud, Minn., said it’s understandable that people lash out when a family member is ill or dying. What’s different now, he said, are the fundamental disagreements about the medical facts and the outrage that sometimes accompanies such interactions.

“We can’t even agree that your loved one has COVID or that COVID is potentially lethal,” Lyons said. “And that’s before you get to the idea that ivermectin doesn’t work.”

The mistrust has led to spiraling tensions between hospitals and families of COVID patients, particularly surrounding ivermectin. The drug β€” used to treat parasitic infections and head lice β€” has been embraced as a miracle cure for covid by many skeptical of vaccines, despite a lack of evidence for its effectiveness.

Ivermectin is not recommended for the treatment of COVID by the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, or the World Health Organization. Large-scale clinical trials of its effectiveness against COVID are currently underway in the United States and Britain.

Still, dozens of lawsuits have been filed against hospitals across the country to compel them to dispense ivermectin to patients, sometimes successfully. In Montana and Alaska, local Republican officials reportedly intervened with hospitals when family members wanted their relatives to be treated with ivermectin.

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A spokeswoman for St. Peter’s Health hospital in Montana said in a statement that its staff was “threatened and harassed when they refused to administer treatments for COVID-19 that are not authorized, clinically approved, or within the guidelines established by the FDA and CDC.” After public officials became involved, “a law enforcement response and a lawsuit were threatened,” the hospital said.

Ivermectin has also become a focal point for conspiracy theorists, including QAnon adherents, leading to situations such as the one in New Hampshire, and similar episodes in Illinois and Washington.

In September, a large hospital in Chicago was the target of a coordinated campaign over its treatment of a vocal QAnon adherent who was ill with COVID. The hospital received hundreds of calls and emails, prompting it to ask police to bolster patrols on the campus. When the patient died, police were present to assist with a small group of people who gathered outside the hospital, said Timothy Nelson, the spokesman for AMITA Health Resurrection Medical Center.

Both the volume of calls and the gathering were unprecedented. “This is not something we have experienced before,” Nelson said.

Sometimes the pressures unfold on a smaller scale. Ashley Carvalho, 34, a doctor who works in an intensive care unit outside Boise, Idaho, said that last September a patient’s relative grew belligerent and threatened her when she declined to administer ivermectin. “He said, ‘I have lots of ways to get people to do what I want, and they’re all sitting in my gun safe at home,'” said Carvalho, who called hospital security.

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Such incidents exacerbate what is already a difficult and demoralizing environment for hospital workers, said Judith Arnetz, a professor of family medicine at Michigan State University who studies workplace violence. “Health-care workers themselves say that at the beginning of the pandemic, people were banging pots and pans and calling us heroes,” Arnetz said. “And now they say, ‘I will not walk outside the hospital in my scrubs.'”

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A town that is home to 13,000 people, Claremont sits near the border of New Hampshire and Vermont. A historic textile mill complex built of deep red bricks towers over the Sugar River, a remnant of the time when the town was a center of industry.

Valley Regional traces its roots to the same era. Founded in 1893, the hospital has the only emergency room in the area and 21 inpatient beds. It employs about 400 people. On a recent morning, the helicopter landing pad next to the main entrance was covered in a light layer of untouched snow.

The group that targeted the hospital calls itself the Truth Seekers 88. Mike Penny, a leader, is based in North Carolina and regularly posts videos and hosts chats on platforms such as Facebook and Telegram. The lengthy videos offer a stream of QAnon conspiracy theories claiming that former president Donald Trump will save the country from the grip of a child-trafficking cabal and that his return to power is all part of a plan.

“My spirit is led by God, obviously, and that’s how the group got founded,” said Penny, 53. “Q has led a lot of people to God in this difficult time.”

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During the pandemic, the conspiracy theories embraced by groups such as Penny’s have evolved to incorporate not just anti-vaccine disinformation but also falsehoods about doctors and the medical establishment. Penny and his group refer to remdesivir, a medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration, as the “r-devil” drug and claim, without evidence, that it kills COVID patients β€” while embracing ivermectin as a lifesaving treatment.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Penny likened medical professionals to Nazi war criminals, saying they would face a new version of the Nuremberg trials for their actions during the pandemic.

In early December, Penny’s group was contacted by Janet Chamberlain, a woman in Claremont whose husband, Lee, had just been hospitalized with COVID. Penny said Janet was a follower of his content.

Penny made Lee’s case the focus of an hour-long video posted on social media, accusing the hospital of ignoring Janet’s wishes for alternate treatment and saying it was of “utmost urgency” that his followers intervene.

“They’re now considered to be kidnapping,” Penny said of the hospital in a video chat posted on Facebook and YouTube on Dec. 8. “Basically, we’re headed towards attempted murder. All right? That’s what it is.”

Penny showed a screenshot of a message that had already been shared in the group’s Telegram channel listing the main number of Valley Regional, together with the names and numbers of senior executives and several doctors, as well as the county sheriff.

The group urged listeners to be “polite, not hateful” in communicating with the hospital, but the live comments on the chat were marked by anger. Viewers called doctors “medical tyrants” and “evil,” and accused the hospital of profiting from each COVID death. In January, YouTube removed the video for violating the platform’s harassment policy, a company spokesman said. Facebook reviewed the video and removed it this week following a query from the Post.

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After Valley Regional was inundated with calls, officers were stationed at the premises around-the-clock, and the hospital closed all entrances to the facility but one. Tim McNulty, the senior director of human resources at the hospital, said his team quickly developed a script to respond to the calls, but “our phone lines and reception staff were overwhelmed for days.” The calls and emails numbered in the hundreds.

Never in his wildest dreams, McNulty said, did he imagine that “our little community could be the victim” of a situation like this.

On Dec. 17, a note with a bomb threat was found at a building near the main hospital that houses practices such as pediatrics, police said. Dale Girard, a Claremont native who has provided the hospital with ambulance services for more than 30 years, said he cannot recall another time when a bomb threat targeted the hospital.

All employees and patients who could be sent home were evacuated. The roads to the hospital were blocked off by members of the county sheriff’s department as bomb-sniffing dogs roamed the premises, starting with the emergency room. As the search unfolded, the locked-down hospital was eerily quiet. No device was found.

Mark Chase, the chief of police in Claremont, said the authorities currently have no information connecting the bomb threat to the pressure campaign. A criminal investigation based on physical evidence collected on the scene is ongoing, Chase said.

That same day, Lee Chamberlain died of COVID at the age of 61. Janet, his wife of more than three decades, declined in an interview with The Post to discuss the details of her communication with the Truth Seekers 88 or Lee’s vaccination status.

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“I was so focused on Lee,” she said through tears. “I was trying to do everything to save my husband.” She said she wanted the hospital to stop using remdesivir and start other forms of treatment. Hospital personnel told her that Lee was making his own decisions, she said, but she felt unable to judge whether that was true and could visit him only twice.

The hospital declined to comment on the treatment of an individual patient because of privacy regulations. Caple said the information disseminated by Penny’s group was “inaccurate” but did not elaborate.

Penny said he doesn’t regret the group’s actions. “It impeded the hospital some, sure,” he said. “But our goal was to get our message out and help Lee.” He said the group was not connected to the bomb threat and had no intention of harming anyone at the hospital.

After the bomb threat, the medical practices connected to the hospital remained closed for three more days. Caple brought in counseling teams to help her employees. During a debriefing session, many staff broke down in tears. There was fear, but anger, too, at outsiders who would issue threats as staff risked their own well-being to care for COVID patients.

Caple said the hospital was buoyed by behind-the-scenes support from law enforcement agencies, other health-care providers, and elected representatives. Nearby hospitals sent additional security personnel and equipment. One hospital chief executive even sent cupcakes for the entire staff after the incident was over.

For Caple, the episode still inspires shock and disbelief. Ultimately, she feels a deep sense of disappointment. At a time when health-care workers deserve commendation, she said, they were “treated like enemies.”

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