An ophthalmologist paraded a series of internet conspiracy theories and unproven health claims before state lawmakers at a hearing at the Oklahoma Capitol this week — including that masks are ineffective at slowing the spread of the virus and that people of color need more vitamin D in their diets to prevent them from contracting COVID-19.
Instead of an epidemiologist or virologist, State Rep. Sean Roberts, R-Hominy, who chairs the House of Representatives’ public health committee, invited two doctors who are vocal supporters of the anti-vaccine movement to speak at an informational hearing on Oklahoma’s response to the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday.
Roberts did not return phone calls to his office on Thursday.
“Medical masks won’t work— there’s no sense in using them,” Tulsa ophthalmologist and blogger Dr. Jim Meehan told state lawmakers at the hearing.
The latest science endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control indicates that wearing face mask helps prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Meehan hosted a press conference in which a group of business owners announced a lawsuit against Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, the Tulsa Department of Health, Tulsa Health Department Executive Director Bruce Dart and the entire Tulsa City Council over a mask mandate that was enacted this summer.
The lawsuit asked the court to vacate the city’s mask mandate, claiming that “face coverings cause an oxygen deficient atmosphere.”
“Forcing people to work, live, shop, eat and visit in an environment where the oxygen level falls below 19.5% has been proven to cause irreparable physiological damage to the body of humans,” the plaintiffs wrote in the lawsuit.
Health experts say that fears of oxygen deprivation or increased risk of hypoxia due carbon dioxide is a myth.
Meehan is a licensed medical doctor who operates in Tulsa. His Oklahoma Medical Board profile lists his specialties as general preventive medicine, nutrition and addiction medicine. He often preaches against vaccines on and wearing face masks on Twitter.
In his Twitter bio, Meehan lists hashtags for “Medical Freedom,” a popular tag for the anti-vaccine movement, and for QAnon, a far-right fringe conspiracy that believes a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles runs a child sex-trafficking ring across the world that also schemes against President Donald Trump. Some members of QAnon believe Trump is secretly sending them coded messages on various websites to update them.
In 2019, the FBI described QAnon as a domestic terror threat.
At one point in the hearing, Meehan said that an overabundance of skin pigment prevents the sun from killing the coronavirus inside the bodies of people of color and they should take more vitamins to keep from getting sick. There is no scientific evidence for that claim.
Another opthamologist, Dr. Chad Chamberlain, who is an outspoken supporter of the anti-vaccine group Oklahomans for Health and Parental Rights, was more measured in his remarks to the committee, but still downplayed the public health threat of the virus.
Chamberlain told state lawmakers that the flu was a bigger health risk for young people than COVID-19. Oklahoma had 85 deaths attributed to the flu during the 2019-2020 season. As of Thursday, 930 Oklahomans have died of COVID-19 this year.
Chamberlain also spoke against closing schools to slow the spread of the virus, claiming that deaths stemming from the long-term effects of social isolation, child abuse and neglect for children kept out of school were bigger public health threats.
“We have to recognize we are killing the children by keeping them out,” he said.
Chamberlain told state lawmakers he supports a COVID-19 vaccine for older people with a higher risk of of dying of COVID-19, but at another public health committee at the state capitol last year, Chamberlain spoke out against mandatory vaccinations.
Oklahoma has the fifth highest rate of COVID-19 transmission in the nation, according to the most recent report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force. The report listed Oklahoma red zone for new cases of COVID-19, indicating more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population last week. The report also recommended Oklahoma institute a statewide mandate on wearing masks in public and review school learning options in areas with ongoing high levels of virus transmission.
On Thursday, Gov. Kevin Stitt criticized the use by reporters of the White House Coronavirus Task Force report hosted on the state’s COVID-19 website, instead urging the public to rely on the John’s Hopkins report. That report lists the state’s positivity rate as being 8.58 percent while the White House report lists Oklahoma’s positivity rate at a flat 10 percent.