In mid-December, Rebecca Lacque turned to Enloe Medical Center seeking a COVID-19 test. Her husband had just been diagnosed with the coronavirus, and she and her daughter had been experiencing symptoms, such as sore throat, fatigue and headaches. They couldn’t find a place to get tested, so they went to the emergency room, seeking answers.
That’s where they met Dr. Lamont Leavitt, an ER physician. Everything seemed normal at first—he checked their lungs and ears. But soon the visit took a bizarre turn. Just before exiting the room to check on another patient, Lacque said, Leavitt cued up his cellphone with a video and left it for her and her daughter to watch, telling them, “This guy really knows what he is talking about.”
What she heard next was a doctor named Roger Hodkinson speaking at a government meeting in Canada, Lacque said. He claimed that the pandemic was the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on an unsuspecting public” and should be considered “nothing more than a bad flu season.” Hodkinson said that masks and social distancing are “useless.” He then advocated for business reopenings and gatherings.
Lacque and her daughter were stunned. They were still grieving the coronavirus-caused death of a family friend. When Leavitt returned, according to Lacque, he told her that he didn’t play the video to “totally understate the pandemic.” Lacque says she interrupted Leavitt, telling him the pandemic cannot be understated and mentioning the loss of her friend.
She was further shocked by his response. Leavitt continued to diminish the seriousness of the disease and lecture her, she said, noting that people die of seasonal influenza each year. Lacque then asked if she and her daughter would be tested, and when he said no, they left.
Lacque’s teenage daughter, Annalise, told the CN&R that it was “scary and maddening” to hear such claims coming from a doctor.
When Lacque got home, she filed a complaint with the hospital, which contacted her via phone and later replied with a letter assuring her that Enloe’s chief of staff had been notified and would investigate the incident. She went elsewhere for testing a week later and found out both she and her daughter were negative.
The situation continued to make her feel uneasy, however. How many people have sought care and been shown this video, she wondered?
“It was surreal that I had a licensed medical clinician in front of me who is trying to tell me that masks, testing and distancing are useless,” she said. “People listen to doctors.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—and numerous studies—report that mask-wearing and social distancing are vital to combating the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed approximately 465,000 people in the United States, including roughly 44,000 Californians. In Butte County, as of this story’s deadline, 10,343 people had tested positive for COVID and 148 had died. That’s a local case fatality rate of 1.4 percent.
Enloe responded to the CN&R’s request to interview Leavitt by providing a statement from Enloe CEO Mike Wiltermood saying that the hospital supports local, state and federal mandates to reduce spread of the virus. He was not aware of the complaint prior to being contacted by the CN&R.
During a phone interview, Wiltermood said that “regardless of people’s personal opinions on debatable items,” such as business and school shutdowns, COVID-19 needs to be taken seriously—people need to get vaccinated, wear masks and social distance.
Wiltermood told the CN&R that Enloe does not discuss individual disciplinary issues, but he noted that Leavitt is still a member of the Chico Emergency Physicians Medical Group, which Enloe contracts with for emergency services, and remains “in good standing.” He would neither confirm nor deny what allegedly occurred, but added that he personally reached out to the head of the medical group and “made it clear … this isn’t appropriate material to be showing our patients.
“They’ve assured me that they’ve dealt with the matter and it won’t happen again,” Wiltermood said.
“Despite maybe a one-off video that was shared, our employees have been very courageous through this whole thing,” he continued. “They take it very seriously, and we’re doing the best job we can under difficult circumstances.”
Wiltermood pointed to the hospital’s vaccination rate as one example. Approximately 2,800 out of Enloe’s 3,500 employees—80 percent of its staff—have received their first vaccine dose, he said.
In addition to expressing concern about the spread of propaganda locally, Lacque said the incident at Enloe is indicative of a larger societal issue—a deadly pandemic made deadlier because Americans turn to questionable sources.
Eleven months into the public health crisis, misinformation remains rampant, in some cases infiltrating health care establishments the public is taught to trust. There have been numerous high-profile instances of medical personnel spreading falsehoods since COVID-19 appeared in the United States.
Millions of people have watched a press conference put on by physicians from an organization calling itself “America’s Frontline Doctors,” for example. The group claims there is a cure for the virus and that masks are therefore unnecessary. It was legitimized by Tea Party Patriots and former President Donald Trump, who personally promoted one of the doctors, Stella Immanuel, whose other notable theories include linking certain medical issues to people dreaming about having sex with witches and demons.
One of the earliest examples of viral-scale pandemic misinformation is attributed to two Bakersfield doctors who said that COVID-19 had a death rate no worse than influenza, a statement that gets repeated today despite having been debunked by the nation’s preeminent epidemiologists and leading health organizations. (According to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine, the United State’s coronavirus case fatality rate is 1.7 percent, whereas the fatality rate of the seasonal flu was 0.06 percent in 2020.)
Similarly, Hodkinson, the Canada-based doctor Enloe’s Leavitt allegedly boosted, has been criticized for his inaccurate statements.
“This is the age of misinformation, and it’s scary because it shows that even intelligent people can be pulled off track,” Lacque said. “And it’s dangerous because lives are at stake.”
Locally, Butte County Public Health is tasked with educating the community on COVID-19. This includes underscoring the importance of personal safety measures.
In December, Public Health issued a press release in response to a planned demonstration outside its Chico office by people demanding that the county relax restrictions mandating closures. The department stated that while it supports people’s right to protest, attendees should wear masks and social distance. Months earlier, a swarm of unmasked protesters clamoring for Chico businesses to reopen gathered outside Chico City Hall.
Despite Public Health’s efforts, Butte County has been in the state’s highest (“purple”) tier throughout most of the pandemic. This means that the virus is considered widespread, with a high risk of COVID infection (the threshold for the tier is more than seven new cases daily per 100,000 people and more than 8 percent positive tests countywide). Butte County reached its highest number of new daily cases (240) on Dec. 11. However, over the past two weeks, the average number of daily confirmed new cases has dropped approximately 30 percent, from 69 per day to 49 per day.
Newly appointed county Public Health Officer Dr. Robert Bernstein said that poor national leadership under the Trump administration has exacerbated the public’s misguided perception of and response to the pandemic.
Without clear guidance from the federal government, the public has relied on questionable sources, including social media, he said, rather than health professionals.
Bernstein stressed that vaccinations are the most effective way to combat the virus, and that people must continue to practice preventative measures—including wearing masks, washing their hands and avoiding gatherings—in order to protect one another.
“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of vaccine hesitancy in our world today. It’s part of a problem that’s been going on the last four years under national leadership, using a lot of disinformation to cause fear and mislead people about what is true and not true,” Bernstein said.
“I think we all should be hopeful that this change is going to work well for everybody,” Bernstein added, referring to President Joseph Biden’s election. “I would hope that people depend on credible, reliable, authoritative sources of information—that is the CDC, the NIH [National Institutes of Health], WHO [World Health Organization] and FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration], and not depend on Twitter and social media for health-seeking behavior.”