N.L. doctor not alone in spreading COVID-19 misinformation, says national association

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — The Canadian Medical Association says a Newfoundland and Labrador doctor sanctioned by his professional order for encouraging people to disobey health orders is among a larger cohort of Canadian doctors spreading COVID-19 misinformation.

Instances of doctors spreading falsehoods about COVID-19 are limited but social media platforms provide them a wide audience when it does happen, Anick Losier, spokeswoman for the Canadian Medical Association, said Thursday.

Dr. Ann Collins, president of the association, says the spread of misinformation during times of crisis is not new. She said in a statement Thursday that the rise of social media, combined with pandemic-induced isolation, "has created something of a perfect storm for false facts and could lead to negative health outcomes."

Dr. Peter J. Morry, a family doctor in the eastern Newfoundland town of Bay Bulls, was cautioned against encouraging people to contravene orders issued by the province's chief medical officer of health, according to the website of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The site says he was also counselled to comply with a section of the Canadian Medical Association's code of ethics on physicians' responsibilities in matters of public health. The site does not indicate when either action was taken.

A Facebook page belonging to someone identified as Peter J. Morry contains posts about debunked COVID-19 conspiracy theories and alternative treatments for the disease. There is also a post inviting his Facebook friends to join a group for followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory on the social networking site Telegram.

The page for the Dr. Morry family practice clinic in Bay Bulls directs all inquiries to Peter J. Morry's Facebook inbox. A receptionist at Morry's office in Bay Bulls said Thursday Morry was unavailable for comment because he was seeing patients all day.

Morry is not the only doctor accused of spreading COVID-19 falsehoods.

On Monday, a group calling itself the Liberty Coalition of Canada published a news release and a video calling for an end to lockdown measures and mask-wearing protocols. The video features six doctors from British Columbia and Ontario, including Dr. Stephen Malthouse of B.C., who was a speaker at so-called "freedom rallies" in Vancouver and Victoria.

Malthouse is the author of a widely shared October letter to B.C.'s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, which was published on a Canadian website widely criticized by health authorities for spreading misinformation.

The coalition did not respond to a request for an interview with its representatives or with Malthouse.

On Feb. 3, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario cautioned pediatrics specialist Dr. Kulvinder Kaur Gill of Brampton, Ont., for a "lack of professionalism" for her tweets claiming COVID-19 vaccines aren't necessary and the disease is not a serious health issue.

In its ruling, the college said tweeting such things is "irresponsible behaviour for a member of the profession and presents a possible risk to public health."

Messages left at Gill's two clinics were not returned Thursday.

Aengus Bridgman, a PhD candidate in political science at McGill University, said it's OK to be "surprised and a bit horrified" that well-educated medical professionals buy into lies and conspiracy theories about COVID-19. Doctors are people, he said, adding that they spend just as much time digesting social media content as everyone else.

"Everyone knows the enormous power that social media has to convince," Bridgman said.

He said many people sharing COVID-19 conspiracy theories or misinformation — doctors included — rely on outdated scientific theories. "You see this a lot like, 'Oh, public health officials have changed their minds, they waffled,'" Bridgman said. "Well yes, but also the science changed."

Dr. Lynette Powell, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, said Thursday in a statement that she advises anyone looking for information about COVID-19 or vaccinations to seek reliable sources "and not social media platforms."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2021.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press