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Regulatory group warns several Alberta doctors about sharing COVID-19 misinformation

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EDMONTON — A group that oversees the practice of medicine in Alberta says it has told at least seven doctors who were spreading misinformation about COVID-19 that their behaviour was unprofessional.

Scott McLeod, registrar with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, says it has also spoken with doctors who gave in to pressure from patients wanting an exemption letter — not grounded in clinical evidence — to avoid having to wear masks or get vaccinations.

"It's incredibly disappointing to see your profession do things that are so harmful to others," McLeod said Tuesday.

"We're in pretty unprecedented times. There are always events where the odd physician may say or do things that are counter to traditional practices of medicine, but not to this degree, not to this scale."

McLeod said the college is to publish a letter this week addressed to physicians and the public to reiterate its support for vaccines and for public health restrictions put in place to try to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The college said the doctors who were warned had been spreading misinformation on social media platforms or elsewhere.

"This is just the minority of people in the profession that are creating a problem, but that minority is having a huge impact," McLeod said. "Physicians do have a very powerful voice in society and people listen to it." 

Alberta has the highest unvaccinated population in Canada. There have been several online discussions this month in which not only doctors, but other public workers and figures, including police officers, firefighters, and on one occasion a popular country star, have promoted false information.

Paul Brandt, a celebrated country singer, recently went on Twitter to clarify an earlier post that toldhis more than 55,000 followers:"An Alberta doctor told me there is no medical need for me to be vaccinated as a COVID-recovered person."

Critics, including other doctors, were quick to inform Brandt that was false information and he should be careful about what he says due to his large following. 

Brandt later tweeted audio of a conversation he had with a virologist who clarified that people who have recovered from COVID-19 are not immune to the virus. 

Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, researches groups that promote hate. He said it's deeply concerning when some in the medical field and people with large online platforms promote false information.

Balgord said thousands of people are latching onto the pandemic conspiracy movement through social media, so when doctors and public figures, in particular, spread false information online "it lends conspiracy theory promoters an air of credibility."

"In some way, shape or form similar stuff like that is happening all across Canada. It just seems like more of it is happening in Alberta now."

Balgord said that's worrisome because research has shown that white supremacist groups are using COVID-19 conspiracies to recruit members. 

A recent report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank that monitors extremism and disinformation, said online communication channels associated with white supremacy and racism grew exponentially during the pandemic.

"Our analysis demonstrated that Canadian RWE (right-wing extremist) communities identified in this study engage in a range of harmful behaviours," said the report.

"This includes potentially illegal activity such as the incitement and glorification of violence and explicit hate speech. In particular, the communities studied in this report appear to act as hubs for disinformation and conspiracy theories, including content relating to the COVID-19 pandemic."

Balgord said COVID-19 is the best thing that ever happened to the far-right movement.

"It's a very dangerous combination of things happening right now. In an environment like that, all it takes is one unstable person to try to act out the violent fantasies of the group."

McLeod said the college had an emergency meeting Monday and "counsel made it very clear that we need to be aggressive in dealing with" doctors spreading misinformation.

"I would recommend that whoever is listening to those physicians also listen to some of the other evidence that's out there with an open mind," he said. "Unfortunately, we see a lot of confirmation bias where people want to believe the science that they're hearing, instead of critically appraising that science."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: The is a corrected story. A previous version said Paul Brandt had apologized on Twitter.