Like hundreds of other medical experts, Leana Wen, MD, an emergency physician and former Baltimore health commissioner, was an early and avid supporter of COVID vaccines and their ability to prevent severe disease, hospitalization, and death from SARS-CoV-2 infections.
When 51-year-old Scott Eli Harris, of Aubrey, Tex., heard of Dr. Wen’s stance in July 2021, the self-described “fifth-generation U.S. Army veteran and a sniper” sent Dr. Wen an electronic invective laden with racist language and very specific threats to shoot her.
Mr. Harris pled guilty to transmitting threats via interstate commerce last February and began serving 6 months in federal prison in the fall of 2022, but his threats wouldn’t be the last for Dr. Wen. Just 2 days after Mr. Harris was sentenced, charges were unsealed against another man in Massachusetts, who threatened that Dr. Wen would “end up in pieces” if she continued “pushing” her thoughts publicly.’
Dr. Wen has plenty of company. In an August 2022 survey of emergency doctors conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians, 85% of respondents said violence against them is increasing. One in four doctors said they’re being assaulted by patients and their family and friends multiple times a week, compared with just 8% of doctors who said as much in 2018. About 64% of emergency physicians reported receiving verbal assaults and threats of violence; 40% reported being hit or slapped, and 26% were kicked.
This uptick of violence and threats against physicians didn’t come out of nowhere; violence against health care workers has been gradually increasing over the past decade. Health care providers can attest to the hostility that particular topics have sparked for years: vaccines in pediatrics, abortion in ob.gyn., and gender-affirming care in endocrinology.
But the pandemic fueled the fire.
‘The people attacking are themselves victims’
The misinformation problem first came to a head in one area of public health: vaccines. The pandemic accelerated antagonism in medicine – thanks, in part, to decades of antivaccine activism.
The antivaccine movement, which has ebbed and flowed in the United States and across the globe since the first vaccine, experienced a new wave in the early 2000s with the combination of concerns about thimerosal in vaccines and a now disproven link between autism and the MMR vaccine. But that movement grew. It picked up steam when activists gained political clout after a 2014 measles outbreak at Disneyland led California schools to tighten up policies regarding vaccinations for kids who enrolled. These stronger public school vaccination laws ran up against religious freedom arguments from antivaccine advocates.
Use of social media continues to grow, and with it, the spread of misinformation. A recent study found that Facebook “users’ social media habits doubled, and in some cases, tripled the amount of fake news they shared.”
In the face of growing confusion, health care providers and public health experts have often struggled to treat their patients – and communicate to the public – without appearing political.
“The people that are doing the attacking are in some ways themselves victims,” said Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston. “They’re victims of the antiscience, antihealth ecosystem coming out of Fox News, the House Freedom Caucus, the CPAC conference, coming out of contrarian intellectuals.”
Many of Dr. Hotez’s colleagues don’t want to talk about the political right as an enabler of scientific disinformation, he said, but that doesn’t change what the evidence shows. The vast majority of state and national bills opposing vaccination, gender-affirming care, comprehensive reproductive care, and other evidence-based medical care often come from Republican legislators.