Snopes is still fighting an “infodemic” of rumors and misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, and you can help. Find out what we’ve learned and how to inoculate yourself against COVID-19 misinformation. Read the latest fact checks about the vaccines. Submit any questionable rumors and “advice” you encounter. Become a Founding Member to help us hire more fact-checkers. And, please, follow the CDC or WHO for guidance on protecting your community from the disease.
A group that called itself “America’s Frontline Doctors” (AFD) took to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on July 27, 2020, in a self-described “White Coat Summit” to address a “massive disinformation campaign” regarding COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by SARS-CoV-2.
A video recording of the 45-minute long event was promoted online as a “SCOTUS press conference” but had no clear affiliation with the high court other than being held on the footsteps of the Washington, D.C., courthouse. Less than 24 hours after being posted, the video was pulled from social media platforms for presenting misinformation lauding unproven treatments for COVID-19, and thousands of reader queries poured in at Snopes, asking about the legitimacy of the video and the personalities featured in it.
During the course of our investigation, we found a doctor who describes herself on Twitter as “God’s battle axe and weapon of war,” health care providers some of whose claimed credentials and affiliations could not be confirmed, and some questionable and outright dangerous claims regarding an unproven “cure” and preventative treatment for COVID-19.
What Is ‘America’s Frontline Doctors’?
AFD appears to be a new group supported and promoted by the conservative political organization Tea Party Patriots Action (TPPatriots), which shared a link to the “summit” on its website. AFD has little online presence and according to Whois, a database that tracks domains online, the americasfrontlinedoctors.com domain was created on July 16, 2020. Though the domain registry itself does not expire until 2021, the link led to a “website expired” page within 24 hours of the event airing. Breitbart reported the AFD website was “shut down” by hosting platform Squarespace. Snopes contacted the email address listed in an archived version of the website but received an email bounce-back that read, “the email account that you tried to reach does not exist.” The archived AFD homepage read:
American life has fallen casualty to a massive disinformation campaign. We can speculate on how this has happened, and why it has continued, but the purpose of the inaugural White Coat Summit is to empower Americans to stop living in fear.
If Americans continue to let so-called experts and media personalities make their decisions, the great American experiment of a Constitutional Republic with Representative Democracy, will cease.
AFD registered for a second domain, americasfrontlinedoctorsummit.com, on July 29, according to Whois. As of Aug. 6, the group appeared to still be active on Facebook and Instagram with thousands of followers.
Each doctor in the video is seen wearing a white coat featuring an “America’s Frontline Doctors” logo on the left side. Dr. Simone Gold, an emergency and general practice physician registered with the California Medical Board and featured in the video, described the group as “doctors, healers, and just people that want to help our nation” who represent “hundreds and thousands of doctors.” In a separate video shared to Twitter, Gold described her take on “flattening the curve” while standing in front of Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai hospital, discussing case rates and hospital capacity as if appearing to have an affiliation with the institution. Cedars-Sinai publicly addressed the videos saying that “there is no one by that name on the staff of Cedars-Sinai or affiliated with Cedars-Sinai.”
Other doctors introduced in the video included Dr. Bob Hamilton, a private-practice pediatrician from Santa Monica, California, known for his ability to soothe a crying baby via the “Hamilton Hold,” as well as Dr. James Todaro, who includes a “not medical advice” caveat on his Twitter profile, and who has no known experience treating COVID-19.
The video also featured Dr. Joseph Ladapo, a physician and clinical researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, who said that he was speaking for himself. According to the California Medical Board, Ladapo’s license was issued in 2016 and is current. Dr. Dan Erickson was also featured in the video. An associated address led us to Accelerated Urgent Care in Bakersfield, California, which told Snopes that Erickson is a part-owner. We have yet to confirm the background, license or specialty of Erickson.
Snopes attempted to contact each of the individuals listed above but received no responses by the time of publication. We will update this article if we hear back. Of the physicians contacted, Ladapo responded to an interview request, and in his email referred to several Op-Ed pieces that he had written, which have been cited in the source section of this article. Ladapo did not agree to interview requests from Snopes, instead replying: “My sense is that you may be more interested in discrediting the physicians who spoke rather than learning more about what they said and why.”
Most notably, Dr. Stella Immanuel, a Texas-based primary care physician with a passion for religion, sparked the curiosity of Snopes readers — at least one-fifth of queries we received in the two days that followed the press conference were about her medical background and allegations based on anecdotal evidence. Claims made by Immanuel sparked controversy and made headlines in the 24 hours following the release of the video. Snopes contacted Immanuel’s facility, Rehoboth Hospital in Houston, Texas, by phone on July 29, 2020, and confirmed that she was indeed a provider. We reached out for comment but were told to call back the following day. We will update the article accordingly.
Who Is Immanuel?
Immanuel has registered offices in both Houston and Katy, Texas. She attended medical school at the University of Calabar College of Medicine in Nigeria and reportedly specialized in malaria. The Texas Medical Board lists two licenses, a temporary physician license issued on Oct. 21, 2019, and a physician license (S3994). Immanuel reports in the latter that she has been actively practicing in the U.S. or Canada for 24 years, though the Texas Medical Board has not verified that claim. More specifically, she has been practicing in Texas for less than a year. In the file, she lists her primary specialty as pediatrics and her secondary as emergency medicine. The board also notes that it has not verified her medical license or education.
A search of Immanuel’s National Provider Identifier (NPI), a number issued to health care providers in the U.S. for insurance purposes, shows that she was assigned one in February 2007. Typically an NPI filing indicates when an individual finished medical school; however, Immanuel listed in her license a graduation year of 1990 — NPI numbers were not available until 2006. It should be noted that an NPI does not ensure that an individual is licensed or accredited, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
State records indicate Immanuel’s current practice is located in Houston, Texas. A Google Maps search of the address found Rehoboth Medical Center in a strip mall known as The Commons at Mission Bend, next door to Fire Power Ministries Christian Resource Center where Immanuel preaches. Medical licensing records also indicate a second address in Katy, Texas.
Viral memes and news accounts claimed Immanuel has made unusual comments, including that witches and demons impact people’s health. We found Immanuel has been vocal about her religious affiliations on the internet. Her Twitter profile described her as a “physician speaker, author, entrepreneur, deliverance minister,” as well as “God’s battle axe and weapon of war.” The Fire Power Deliverance Ministry website was taken down shortly after the Supreme Court press conference aired, but an archived version of it can be viewed here. The website lists sermons such as “Deliverance from Foundational or Family Line Witchcraft” and “Deliverance from Spirit wives and Spirit husbands.” An Amazon search returned religious-related books she has written, including those titled “Jesus Help The Church Has Been Caged” and “Three Nights With God.” Immanuel also has held sermons and wrote on her now-deleted website that “tormenting spirits are responsible” for “serious gynecological problems” and “impotence.”
“Many women suffer from astral sex regularly. Astral sex is the ability to project one’s spirit man into the victim’s body and have intercourse with it. This practice is very common amongst Satanists. They leave their physical bodies in a dormant state while they project their spirits into the body of whoever they want to have sex with,” Immanuel wrote.
Other YouTube videos posted by Immanuel include a “prayer against coronavirus” and prayers against “familiar” and “marine” spirits.
What Did Immanuel Claim During the Press Conference?
Immanuel touted hydroxychloroquine, a controversial and unproven treatment for COVID-19 pushed by U.S. President Donald Trump and others, as both a preventative and “cure” for COVID-19. Immanuel also claims to have successfully treated 350 patients for the respiratory disease, some of whom she said had underlying conditions such as diabetes or asthma:
And today I’m here to say it, that America, there is a cure for COVID. All this foolishness does not need to happen. There is a cure for COVID. There is a cure for COVID is called hydroxychloroquine. It’s called zinc. It’s called Zithromax.
We found no evidence to suggest Immanuel has treated “hundreds” of COVID-19 patients — including herself, staff, and “many doctors” — nor that her alleged treatments were successful. Nor has she provided any evidence to support those claims that we are aware of.
On June 20, 2020, the National Institutes of Health halted a clinical trial treating 470 adults hospitalized or anticipated to be hospitalized with COVID-19 with hydroxychloroquine. Researchers participating in the double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial found that the treatment did no harm but “provides no benefit.” Less than two weeks later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cautioned against the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine for COVID-19 “outside of the hospital setting or a clinical trial due to risk of heart rhythm problems” and other safety issues, including “lymph system disorders, kidney injuries, and liver problems and failures.”
A study published in the August 2020 issue of International Journal of Infectious Diseases found that hospitalized patients who were given a treatment of hydroxychloroquine alone or in combination with azithromycin were associated with a significantly lower death rate. That being said, the observational study — not experimental by design — and consisted of an analysis of the electronic medical records of patients submitted to Michigan’s Henry Ford Health System between March 10 and May 2, 2020. All patients were treated in a hospital under the care of a physician.
Of the more than 2,500 patients analyzed, 13.5% of whom were treated with hydroxychloroquine died compared to 26.5% of patients that had received no treatment. The results may be explained partly due to the “aggressive early medical intervention” and monitoring that admitted patients were given, making them less likely to develop more serious complications of COVID-19. Furthermore, patients older than 65 years old and those with severe illness when admitted were not included in the analysis.
While the findings provide crucial data on hydroxychloroquine, the researchers caution that they “should be interpreted with some caution and should not be applied to patients treated outside of hospital settings.” Hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin treatments, whether administered individually or in combination, require further testing in both a pre-clinical and clinical setting to allow for expert monitoring of their safety and efficacy.
A study listed with the U.S. National Library of Medicine is underway to test the safety and efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, Azithromycin, Zinc Sulfate, and Doxycycline when used in combination with each other. But no results have been posted, and the 750-participant study is not expected to conclude until Dec. 31, 2020.
Immanuel also cited one case study describing a 62-year-old man who went to the emergency room after experiencing persistent hiccups for four days and weight loss over the course of four months. The man reportedly was found to be COVID positive, was treated using hydroxychloroquine, and was discharged three days after admission in stable condition. But it is important to note that a case report is different from a study in that it describes an event but does not draw conclusions or correlations between various factors. The case authors highlight that physicians should bear in mind more “atypical presentations” of COVID-19 but do not speculate on the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine.
After the “White Coat Summit” video was removed from social media — by which time it had already been viewed millions of times — Immanuel took to Twitter to demand that Facebook reinstate her page, threatening the social media site “in Jesus name.”
What Is the TPPatriot Connection?
Snopes readers asked us to identify the man who introduced the July 27 press conference. We confirmed him to be U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, a Republican from South Carolina who aligns with several of TPPatriot’s positions but who says he is not affiliated with the group. Snopes contacted Norman’s Press Secretary Austin Livingston and was forwarded a media advisory from TPPatriots, who positioned the event as a call to “encourage state officials to reopen schools.” A statement from the representative read as follows:
Our current understanding is that Stella Immanuel’s remarks during that press conference are being censored from social media platforms because she used the phrases “we have a cure” and “don’t need a mask.” (That’s different from saying, for example, “here is what I’m seeing with my patients.” Or, “here’s what we are doing in our hospital in Texas.” Had she phrased it this way, chances are it would not have been censored.)
Congressman Norman was present at Monday’s press conference to help encourage schools to try to safely reopen for in-person learning this fall, if possible, and was not privy to her remarks ahead of time. While the Congressman does not agree with her statement on the use of masks, and certainly has no expertise in medications, he strongly believes that she has a right to say what she came to say. Without being censored by big tech.
Snopes contacted Twitter for a response to this alleged “censorship” but received no response at the time of publication. In addition to Twitter and Facebook, YouTube reportedly pulled the content under the premise that it violated community standards.
On July 28, TPPatriots and AFD issued a video response about “high tech censorship” and noted the importance of balancing a “healthy respect” for the virus with a return to normal life. A speaker also noted that hydroxychloroquine is FDA-approved and is a “safe drug” that has been around for 65 years. These sentiments are true when referring to the drug as a treatment for malaria, but it has yet to be proven safe or effective for the treatment of COVID-19, and it may cause adverse reactions in those experiencing severe respiratory infections and other symptoms associated with the disease.
When questioned about Immanuel’s claims during a White House press briefing held on July 28, Trump said that he thought Immanuel was “very impressive” and that “her voice was an important voice,” yet admitted that he knew “nothing about her.” When pressured to respond to claims made by AFD that masks are ineffective, Trump abruptly ended the press conference. In a press briefing held the following day, Trump affirmed his positive impression of Immanuel and said:
I was very impressed with her and other doctors that stood with her. I think she made sense, but I know nothing about her. I just saw her on — you know, making a statement with very respected doctors. She was not alone. She was making a statement about hydroxychloroquine with other doctors that swear by it. They think it’s great. So she was not alone.
And with hydroxy, all I want to do is save lives. I don’t care if it’s hydroxy or anything else. All I want to do is save lives. If we can save lives, that’s great.
On July 29, the Trump administration issued a statement announcing that it had filed a petition to clarify the scope of a section of the May 2020 Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship. The petition requests that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) clarify that the section “does not permit social media companies that alter or editorialize users’ speech to escape civil liability.”
The petition further requests that the FCC “clarify when an online platform curates content in ‘good faith,’ and requests transparency requirements on their moderation practices” and concludes that the president will “fight back against unfair, un-American, and politically biased censorship of Americans online.”