As the old saying goes, a lie can travel to Mars and back before truth gets off the launching pad. That’s what it’s been like attempting to fact check the first three episodes of the Red White & Blueprint docuseries the past few months. By the time you read this, Episode 4 will have been released, and here I am still mopping up the falsehoods and misinformation presented in Episode 3.
Billed as a “blueprint” for other counties to follow, the RW&B docuseries is actually a thinly disguised campaign vehicle supporting the recall of three conservative Republican Shasta County supervisors, ostensibly for following the state’s COVID-19 precautions during the pandemic. RW&B’s fundraising activities are currently being investigated by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission.
Last time out, I examined District 4 Shasta County Supervisor Patrick Jones’s ultimately spurious claim in Episode 3 that an anonymous $1 million donation had bought off Redding Colts 45s’ general manager Rick Bosetti almost a decade ago, when Bosetti and Jones served on the Redding City Council. Jones declined to provide any proof for his claim, and after some rather exhaustive reporting, I have yet to find any evidence that it happened.
Also in Episode 3, perhaps to distract viewers from the creeping realization that Connecticut gazillionaire Reverge Anselmo and his surrogate Jones have taken over the recall movement in pursuit of their own vainglorious right-wing agenda, the filmmakers interviewed three local physicians about various COVID-19 issues, to remind us that the recall is about Shasta County’s supposedly piss-poor response to the pandemic.
A disclaimer flashes on screen before the three physicians make their appearance: “The panel [of doctors] made it clear they did not want to disclose their opinions of the recall effort but rather share their experience from the front lines regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In the roughly six-minute segment that follows, the doctors, none of whom is an expert in infectious diseases, epidemiology or public health, never really disclose their beliefs on the various COVID-19 issues they discuss. We’re given hints—the numbers have been gamed, hydroxychloroquine works, masks don’t work, the lockdown has been worse than the virus—that anyone who’s closely followed the pandemic will recognize as conservative talking points. But no definitive claims are made, thanks to editing that truncates each doctor before he’s fully made his point.
For this reason, in my review of Episode 3, I suggested the doctors had been “hoodwinked.” I chose to not name the doctors in the review, even though they’re named in the episode. Some readers objected to my decision, but I let the doctors off the hook because I took the filmmaker’s disclaimer literally.
Then several things happened simultaneously. I learned that one doctor in the episode did feel like he’d been hoodwinked, and that he wanted to talk about it. Right after I talked to him, the RW&B organization began promoting the six-minute doctor segment in fundraising emails:
“In Episode 3 we’re pulling back the curtain on what’s been going on as we Hear local physicians speak out against state overreach amidst the covid crisis, and further prove that the numbers NEVER JUSTIFIED A SHUTDOWN.”
The RW&B also posted the segment on their Facebook page, where it earned a slap on the wrist from Facebook for spreading misinformation: “Visit the COVID-19 information center for vaccine resources.”
As it happens, prominent Redding cardiac surgeon Dr. Douglas McConnell, pictured above, was the physician who wanted to speak to me because he was concerned about his appearance in RW&B episode 3. We spoke on the phone, off the record, for two hours about various COVID-19 issues. He provided me with some homework, a dozen articles or so, as a starting off point. I read all of them.
Dr. McConnell did have concerns about the episode and said he was in touch with the two physicians who appeared with him, Dr. Richard Malotky, a generally respected Redding family physician, and gastroenterologist Dr. Paul Dhanuka, former chief of staff at Mercy Medical Center and Shasta Regional Medical Center, as well as an AD-1 candidate in 2018. (Pulmonologist Dr. Steven Struve, the retired Mercy Medical Center medical director, appears briefly via Zoom on a laptop screen at the start of the episode, laughs once and is not heard from again. I was unable to contact him.)
I informed Dr. McConnell, in as sober language as possible, that I believe the recall movement has violent proto-fascist tendencies, and that he and his colleagues might want to reconsider appearing in their docuseries. I also told him that RW&B’s fundraising division is now claiming the local physicians “further prove the numbers never justified a lockdown,” which is a slap in the face of every public health official working in Shasta County.
Additionally, I contacted Dr. Dhanuka by Facebook Messenger. He was leery about talking to me after my Episode 3 review, which wasn’t flattering. In the episode, there’s a scene in which Dhanuka preaches the “cure must not be worse than the disease” gospel at the Shasta County Board of Supervisors last August, when COVID-19 regulations limited board room attendance to one speaker at a time. He had four agenda items he wanted to discuss with the supervisors but what he wanted to present exceeded the 3-minute speaking limit. A disembodied supervisor’s voice tells him to send the board his agenda and move along.
I told Dr. Dhanuka I’d love to publish his four agenda items to see what he had in mind. I also asked him if he submitted the four agenda items to the board, as asked. Dr. Dhanuka hasn’t responded, and the board of supervisors’ staff, at my request for a search, have yet to find the doctor’s agenda items in their voluminous emails from the past year.
I also contacted Dr. Richard Malotky at his office and left a message. He hasn’t responded.
Dr. Malotky raised hackles earlier this year when he claimed on social media that individuals who’ve had COVID-19 and survived have immunity to the novel coronavirus and therefore don’t need to be vaccinated. While Dr. Malotky might have written with more detail and precision, as more data comes in over time, it’s beginning to look like surviving COVID-19 does provide more long-term immunity than comment section critics might concede.
At the same time, in Episode 3, Dr. Malotky, comparing the miniscule size of virions to relatively gargantuan bacteria, stops just short of saying masks don’t work to stop the spread of COVID-19. “The idea that you can prevent exposure to that is kind of ludicrous,” he says. He also stops just short of claiming hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for COVID-19, an argument that might have been cogent last year before numerous controlled studies proved otherwise.
Like Dr. McConnell, I believe Dr. Anthony Fauci has made mistakes. Fauci often makes national proclamations that aren’t necessarily scientifically sound to manipulate the behavior of the masses. For example, in the early stages of the pandemic, Fauci advised the general public that facemasks weren’t necessary. It wasn’t because facemasks don’t work. As we’ll see below study after study demonstrates facemasks do work. It was because healthcare officials at the time worried front-line workers would run out of personal protection equipment.
However, I don’t agree with Dr. McConnell and the filmmakers that Fauci’s grilling by bellicose blowhard Ohio Rep. Jim “Jacket Off” Jordan, which is featured in Episode 3, is an example of Fauci effing up. Jordan asked Fauci for an imaginary number, a universal marker for when we can all go back to normal. The question can’t be answered because the Trump administration never mounted a national effort, forcing every state to go its own way when dealing with COVID-19.
At any rate, Dr. McConnell’s claim in Episode 3 that the COVID-19 data is being “gamed” to create more cases and scare us into submission makes Rep. Jordan’s hectoring of Fauci irrelevant. It’s an astonishingly careless assertion for a medical professional to make, and it’s being spoon-fed to an audience that already denies science and believes COVID-19 is a hoax. Money is being raised on the false claim that the testimony of Drs. McConnell, Malotky and Dhanuka “further prove that the numbers don’t justify a shutdown.”
According to the disclaimer, the doctors didn’t want to disclose their opinions about the recall. Nevertheless, they are propping up the recall movement’s claim that Shasta County botched the response to the pandemic.
While the doctors may not have intended this, their segment in RW&B Episode 3 is a fount of medical misinformation. To help correct the record, I formulated a list of 11 questionable claims raised in the six-minute segment and sent them to Shasta County Public Health. Below you’ll find the agency’s responses.
1. One doctor claims COVID-19 testing is “gamed” to create more positive cases in order to scare people into compliance. He appears to be implying that there is less COVID-19 in the county than the daily update indicates. Is this true in Shasta County?
We are certain that there are more COVID-19 cases in the county than the daily update indicates, because not all people are tested for COVID-19. Each case represents a unique individual who tested positive with a molecular test (e.g., PCR). We know there are many people who have either tested positive on tests that do not count in our daily numbers (such as antigen tests), as well as families where one person tested positive and subsequently the other family members became ill. Sometimes those other family members did not get tested, but simply presumed they were positive and isolated accordingly. This holds true nationally as well as the CDC estimates that only 1 in 4.3 (95% CI 3.7-5.0) total COVID-19 infections were reported, meaning for every 1 case reported there were actually 4.3 infections.
2. The doctor claims a person who tests positive multiple times is counted as multiple cases. Does this occur in Shasta County?
No. Each confirmed case represents a unique individual. There are national standardized case definitions for counting cases, including distinguishing new cases from repeat positive tests on the same individual. In this scenario, a new case would not be opened locally until investigation of symptoms, exposure status and timing of test results in order to ensure it is actually a new case.
3. The doctor claims that we can’t be certain of the county’s COVID-19 count because the county doesn’t use a unique ID for each person tested. What does the county use for ID and does the doctor have a point?
Each case is entered into a state database called CalREDIE (California Reportable Disease Information Exchange), which is used for disease reporting and surveillance. Each patient has a unique patient ID with patient demographic (e.g. date of birth, race, address). Every day we reconcile records and add additional positive labs to the unique patient ID case so that it is only counted once. The state also assists in the process by making sure only unique PCR positive cases are reported. We reconcile our numbers with the state each week on Wednesday removing any duplicates, not a case or those with only an antigen positive from the total number of cases reported for Shasta County.
4. Is it accurate to say Shasta County was “locked down” since so much of it remained open during the pandemic?
Most industry, education and government services remained open, with COVID safety restrictions, during the last year. Shasta County is a local jurisdiction of the state of California and as such must follow all Executive Orders. Following Governor Gavin Newsom’s Executive Stay-at-Home Order N-33-20, he issued Executive Order N-60-20 on May 4, 2020, directing the State Public Health Officer to issue a risk-based framework for reopening the economy, and all restrictions on businesses and activities deriving from that framework, including all aspects of the Blueprint for a Safer Economy. The Blueprint detailed how various industries could open following safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and restricted some high-risk environments, such as family entertainment and bars, from opening in the early stages of the pandemic. But even those were allowed to open with modifications at some point. Shasta County Public Health focused our efforts on education and awareness to ensure businesses and community members were aware of strategies to limit transmission and operate safely.
5. Why don’t COVID-19 reports emphasize the vast number of people who recover from the virus, rather than the smaller number who have died? For example, in Shasta County 12,367 have survived and just 232 have died. Would the public be less scared if we used the more positive figure?
They do. For 15 months, in our daily Incident Reports and the weekly Media Briefing, we have shared several types of data—including the number of people who survived (released from isolation). While more than 12,000 people recovered from COVID, 232 COVID-19 deaths is a concerning number. The number of deaths in 2020 made COVID the third-highest cause of death in Shasta County following heart disease and chronic lower respiratory disease. With 121 deaths so far in 2021, it is on track to remain in third position.
Sharing data is not a scare tactic. We believe Shasta County residents deserve to be informed and empowered to practice safety precautions such as getting vaccinated, wearing masks and physical distancing to protect themselves. We do not use the term “recovered” because no longer being infectious does not necessarily mean that someone is well or that they’ve recovered or healed. Many people have long-lasting symptoms that can sometimes be debilitating, a condition that has come to be known as “long COVID.” It would not be accurate to say they’ve recovered from COVID just because they’re still alive at the end of their isolation period.
6. One doctor describes the history of public health thusly: 100 years ago we addressed pandemics by shaming, stigmatizing, exclusion, and mandates. Today public health has evolved and uses education, empowerment and encouragement to fight pandemics. Is that actually the history of how public health’s approach to pandemics has evolved?
Public Health has used vaccination, sanitation, education and prevention to protect people from many communicable diseases throughout history, including those that caused pandemics. With novel infections, there are not specific drugs or vaccines initially available, so nonpharmaceutical interventions must be used to mitigate disease spread. Key nonpharmaceutical interventions include strategies such as separating the sick from the well; quarantine of close contacts; physical distancing; masking; and travel restrictions. Providing information to the public on why and how to use these measures to protect themselves until medications and vaccines are available is an important part of this.
7. Why did Gov. Newsom’s team ban the off-label use of hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of COVID-19?
It would be most appropriate for Gov. Newsom’s office to respond to this question. But we do know that the FDA revoked the emergency use authorization (EUA) for hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of COVID-19 on June 15, 2020 after results from several clinical trials failed to show that HCQ could be safe and effective for treating or preventing COVID-19.
8. Citing the fact that a virus infection has many more millions of particles than a bacterial infection, one doctor suggests masks and social distancing don’t work: “the idea that you can prevent exposure to that is kind of ludicrous.” Is he correct?
The statement that “a virus infection has many more millions of particles than a bacterial infection” actually supports the use of a face covering to protect others from infected individuals. According to the Centers for Disease Control, experimental and epidemiological data support community masking to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2. The prevention benefit of masking includes the wearer and those in close contact with that person especially if both are wearing masks. Mask use has been found to be safe and effective.
9. One doctor says the closing of public schools was the final straw for him. What role, if any, did Public Health play in the closing of public schools?
In spring 2020, the decision to close schools involved decisionmakers in education, such as the California Department of Education and local school districts. For the 2020-2021 school year, Shasta County Public Health worked closely with school superintendents to adopt safety practices and rapidly contain outbreaks, which allowed Shasta County schools to remain open, or at least partially open, throughout the 2020-2021 school year. In fact, Health Officer Karen Ramstrom and Public Health Branch Director Robin Schurig advocated to the state Department of Education for schools to remain open, as they believed it could be done safely and was important to the education and well-being of students.
10. Does Public Health have any data on the alleged increase in anxiety, mental illness and suicide among children and adults in Shasta County during the pandemic?
Monitoring and addressing the mental well-being of Shasta County residents is a priority for Public Health. Additionally, the Health and Human Services Agency has focused resources toward suicide prevention and mental well-being for several years. Number of deaths by suicide for the past three years is included in the causes of death chart included in question 3. We would encourage you to check in with organizations like Hill Country or Dunamis to learn whether there has been an uptick in calls for anxiety, depression and other mental health problems among the general population.
11. The state lifted all or most of its COVID regulations on June 15. But that does not mean the risk posed by COVID-19 is zero, correct?
Correct, while the state restrictions were lifted, the COVID-19 virus and its variants are still prevalent in Shasta County, so our work continues. One of our main objectives is continued efforts to ensure that our community gets vaccinated.