In September of 2021, the Ohio Medical Board automatically renewed the license of osteopathic physician Sherri Tenpenny, surprising just about everyone, seemingly including Tenpenny herself. She issued a statement on Telegram thanking her supporters for standing behind her. “Especially now,” she wrote, “as we navigate through some of the most harrowing times we will most likely ever witness!”
Months later, public records show, Tenpenny was being investigated by the same medical board, an investigation which is ongoing; she faces consequences ranging from a reprimand to the potential loss of her medical license. While the details of why she’s being investigated aren’t public, it seems safe to presume it has something to do with Tenpenny’s extensive, well-documented, and frequently outrageous anti-vaccine statements. (A spokesperson for the medical board told Motherboard, “Under Ohio law, complaints and/or investigative materials, including the number of complaints or investigations, are confidential. However, if a licensee is disciplined by the board, the action is public record.”)
Osteopaths often fill the same roles as MDs, but also focus on the musculoskeletal system; the osteopathic philosophy holds that many health issues are due to misalignment of the bones, joints, or muscular system. (Osteopaths are sometimes accused of employing dubious theories or pseudoscientific practices in their work, though that is not always the case.) For years, though, Tenpenny has put her focus instead on the supposed harms of vaccines. During the pandemic, she’s made ever-more extreme and occasionally comical claims about COVID vaccines in particular. Shortly before her license was renewed, for instance, Tenpenny claimed that COVID vaccines make their recipients magnetic. “‘They can put a key on their forehead. It sticks,” she declared, falsely, in testimony before the Ohio House Health Committee that quickly went viral.
Nor are vaccines, by any measure, a new preoccupation for her: During remarks made aboard a 2016 cruise for conspiracy theorists, which I attended, Tenpenny downplayed the risks of measles—a disease that can be deadly—to young children while advocating against MMR vaccines. She also told her audience that, in general, they shouldn’t need to be vaccinated as long as they avoided “filth countries,” a phrase that has lodged immovably in my memory.
As Tenpenny faces down Ohio’s medical board, a similar drama is playing out in Maine, where a hospital internist named Meryl Nass has had her medical license suspended since January of this year. Nass, who describes herself as an expert on anthrax and vaccine injury, has actively spread COVID misinformation on Twitter and on her blog; she’s also involved with Children’s Health Defense (CHD), Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s prominent anti-vaccine organization. She’s made conspiratorial claims that COVID is part of a large conspiracy on the part of “the cabal,” as she calls it, writing on Substack in June that “the cabal” is “seriously pulling lots of levers now, and that money pox [sic], artificial shortages of oil, fertilizer, railway cars and baby formula are part of their plan to create economic havoc worldwide, and probably famine in the poorer regions of the world.”
The medical board began investigating her after she prescribed hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin to a COVID-positive family of three – two parents and their adult son– charging that she failed to follow proper standards of care. All three people ultimately ended up in the hospital; a concerned doctor who treated one of them made a report to the medical board. Separately, a midwife reported Nass’ conduct to the board in December, saying that earlier in the year, one of her pregnant clients tested positive for COVID and said she was prescribed hydroxychloroquine by Nass. A progress note that Nass wrote on September 21 for the patient contained, according to the board, “no patient history, no physical examination, no medical decision-making, no patient informed consent, no coordination of care, and no recommended follow-up.”
At a hearing this week, Nass called other COVID-and-vaccine denying pseudocelebrities to testify on her behalf, including Robert Malone, who falsely claimed that people were getting COVID vaccines due to “mass formation psychosis,” and Pierre Kory, one of the ivermectin guys.
Nass and CHD have made it clear that they view the case against her as a momentous one. CHD livestreamed two October hearings against her and crowed when the board dropped some of the misinformation charges against her. (The board did not return a request for comment from Motherboard about why it chose to do so.) The Epoch Times, the Falun Gong-backed newspaper which has become an enormous pipeline for far-right misinformation and for which Nass has written columns on COVID, also aired a livestream of the hearings. In a lengthy opening statement, Nass’ attorney, Gene Libby, denied any wrongdoing on her part or failure to properly care for her patients, and said she had been “caught in a web of government lies to the public.”
The anti-vaccine world seems to see Nass’ situation as a test case in how to combat charges of misinformation, as well as a chance to loudly promote what they call “early treatment”—that is, the use of long-discredited COVID treatments like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.
“Once I realized I was being used as a poster child in a national fear campaign designed to purge doctors who think independently, I decided to fight back,” Nass wrote in a recent blog on Substack. “Fortunately, Children's Health Defense is helping with my legal expenses, which is what allows me to mount a strong defense against the bulldozing of free speech, patient autonomy and choice, and the doctor-patient relationship. There is a lot riding on the outcome.”
In one sense, Nass is correct: What’s happening to her and Tenpenny is part of a much larger trend, and a brewing, culture-wide showdown. State medical boards and certification bodies face growing pressure to take action against crank doctors, and more and more often, they’re heeding that call. This summer, Kory and Peter McCullough, who have both loudly advocated for discredited COVID treatments, said they were at risk of losing their board certification from the American Board of Internal Medicine. California governor Gavin Newsom recently signed a new law that will make doctors subject to professional discipline if they repeat “false or misleading” medical information to their patients. And the Federation of State Medical Boards recently issued a strongly worded statement and a position paper on the problem of physicians spreading medical misinformation, and the consequences they should face.
Anti-vaccine organizations and public figures have proclaimed that they’re outraged by these actions, saying they infringe on free speech and the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship. But they also quite clearly see an opportunity, taking this moment as a chance to grandstand, promote more COVID misinformation, turn the reprimanded doctors into martyrs for free speech, and, above all, fundraise.
And they have powerful allies, like Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson, who recently told an anti-vaccine audience he’s in a “guerilla war” against the medical establishment and what he called “woke doctors.” (Johnson complained those doctors “will not question authority, don't have the courage and compassion to practice medicine. They just follow orders.”)
There are also clear signs that medical boards trying to sanction crank doctors is becoming the next major culture war fight. In several states, legislation has been introduced that is aimed at limiting medical board power or explicitly allowing “off-label” treatments—that is, things like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine— for COVID. (The prescription of drugs outside their intended use, it should be noted, is incredibly common. It’s difficult to imagine what a regulatory regime that would still permit it while barring discredited COVID treatments would look like.)
Meanwhile, some medical experts say what medical bodies are doing to respond to the problem of crank doctors isn’t enough.
“At this point, I’m disappointed and I'm just pissed,” Nick Sawyer told Motherboard. He’s a co-founder of No License for Disinformation, which was founded to respond to the problem of doctors promoting COVID and vaccine misinformation.
The medical establishment response, Sawyer, argues, has been utterly inadequate, the definition of too little too late.
“There are so many people who have the authority, the platform and the finances to stop this,” he said recently. “But they’re not standing up for science, the truth, and they’re not standing up for patients.”
Even before COVID, a small subsection of doctors promoted medical misinformation: bogus cancer cures, fake and politicized science drawing false linkages between vaccines and autism, or between abortion and subsequent breast cancer. Naturally, then, COVID misinformation began as soon as the pandemic did, and doctors were never immune to its lure. People like Nass, Kory, and Malone, who weren’t particularly prominent before the pandemic, have become famous in the alternate, COVID-skeptical universe, even as they face some amount of mainstream opprobrium or professional consequences. Joe Rogan has played a particularly large role in increasing some of these people’s public platform, hosting Kory, Malone, McCullough and former New York Times journalist and current full-time COVID troll Alex Berenson, among numerous other guests who have made false or misleading claims about COVID and vaccines.
Not every doctor has suffered professional consequences for promoting COVID misinformation: Joseph Ladapo, for instance, a UCLA researcher who appeared with the quack group America’s Frontline Doctors, has become Florida’s surgeon general, a position he immediately used to fearmonger about COVID vaccines. Ladapo recommended that younger men not get those vaccines, leading to immediate and widespread condemnation from other medical experts.
It’s also not common for doctors to be suspended or stripped of their licenses solely for promoting misinformation or for promoting their own bizarre brands of COVID denial. (One doctor in San Francisco who promoted bogus COVID treatments did relinquish his medical license voluntarily last year to become an unlicensed “health coach.”) Most of the charges against Nass are about her failure to create a coherent treatment plan or refer her patients to an emergency department when it became clear they needed one, and for lying to a pharmacist, claiming that one of the patients had Lyme disease,in order to get them a hydroxychloroquine prescription. (Nass acknowledged lying in a statement to the medical board.) There won’t be a quick resolution to her case, either; the next day of hearings is not scheduled until January, giving CHD and other similar organizations plenty of time to make her a poster child for their movement.
Sherri Tenpenny, meanwhile, currently faces a possible reprimand for not participating in the administrative process set up by Ohio’s medical board. Records from the board show that state investigators have tried to make contact with Tenpenny since July of 2021, before her license was automatically renewed. Their last attempt, according to a letter they sent to her and her attorney, was in mid-June 2022, when they asked her to attend an “investigative office conference” the following month. Tenpenny informed them in a return letter that she did not believe the board “has a lawful basis for the investigative office conference” and said she wouldn’t participate in it. (Tenpenny’s attorney, Thomas Renz, who’s busily tried to make a name for himself by aligning with the anti-vaccine movement, did not respond to a request for comment from Motherboard.)
In both cases, the doctors are setting up clear challenges to the medical board’s authority, their ability to oversee what doctors do and set basic safety and competency standards.
“These doctors are violating state law,” said Sawyer of No License for Disinformation, referring generally to doctors who promote medical and COVID misinformation. “It’s not like this is a matter of opinion. Each state has a medical practice act that specifically defines the boundaries around acceptable professional behavior.” He’s watched as the same group of doctors and anti-vaccine groups put out statements and shoddily-designed studies, all aimed at questioning the realities of COVID and the vaccines against it, what he calls a “brute force disinformation campaign.”
This new campaign takes it a step further, Sawyer added; by questioning a state medical board’s authority to oversee them, and the science underpinning the practice of medicine, “these people are questioning reality itself. And that’s incredibly dangerous.”
This is, of course, of a piece with the politics of the moment: The states trying to legalize or formalize the use of drugs like ivermectin are largely conservative-leaning ones, where denying the reality that Donald Trump lost the last election brings political advantage. If Republican politicians get the sense that standing up for quackery and against the basic processes of the administrative state is a useful wedge issue, there’s no reason to think more of them won’t join in. And in the meantime, the ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine discourse is leading to increasingly weird, bizarre and and worrying real-world encounters. Last December, the president of the California medical board said she was followed and harassed by people belonging to America’s Frontline Doctors, four of whom confronted her in a dark parking garage and followed her to her home. (The incident ended without physical violence.)
There’s a strong reason to think that all of this is just beginning, and that the endgame here is not just to question reality, but to bend it into a shape more favorable to the COVID deniers and the broader pseudomedical universe they’re part of. Part of the strategy for getting there is to force loud, public showdowns between these two versions of the world. Medical boards records show that after Nass prescribed hydroxychloroquine to her COVID patient and lied to a pharmacist to get it, she reported what she’d done herself.
“I wrote a letter to the board of medicine telling them they had forced me to miss inform [sic] a pharmacy today in order to get a life-saving medicine to a patient,” Nass wrote in a text to the patient’s spouse. “Let’s see what they do with that.”