Doctors in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, held a news conference to urge the public to get vaccinated amid a statewide outbreak of COVID-19 was undermined online, with false reports claiming the doctors on jobs had walked off. 

Doctors who took part in Monday’s protest told ‘The Associated Press that they did not strike or refuse to treat patients. According to them, the false claims have resulted in threats and harassment directed at their colleagues and hospital jobs. A group of 75 Florida doctors walked out of work to protest the number of unvaccinated patients crowding the state’s hospitals. 

According to doctors who attended, the news conference was held before office hours and was intended to encourage people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and wear masks. It wasn’t a protest or a strike. The news conference was covered on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” early Monday morning with the misleading on-screen caption: “South Florida doctors walkout in protest.” 

The network clarified on air Tuesday morning that doctors did not walk away from their jobs, but the language had already been picked up by social media users and other news outlets. Some chastised the doctors for allegedly refusing treatment. 

“Breaking report: More Than 75 Doctors Walk out of south Florida hospitaL Rather Than Treat the Unvaccinated,” read one widely shared tweet. 

Dr. Jennifer Buczyner, a neurologist who organized the news conference, said she was frustrated by the false assertion. “This was a physician-driven press conference to encourage our community to get vaccinated and talk about the impact this has had on our community,” Buczyner told the AP in an email. 

Indeed, the words “protest” or “walkout” were not used in an email inviting doctors to participate. Rather, the email, which the AP reviewed, urged local medical staff to attend a “Community ‘Get Vaccinated’ event” that would be covered by the news media. The event’s stated goal was to “encourage our community to get vaccinated and take this seriously.” 

The event was organized by doctors and held in the parking lot of a medical office, but it included participation from the leadership and staff of several local hospitals. It came as Florida experienced more than 21,000 new COVID-19 cases per day in mid-August. According to federal government data, there were 16,820 people hospitalized in Florida with the disease on Tuesday, down from a high of more than 17,000 last week. 

Buczyner, Jupiter Medical Center’s stroke director, said the news conference was over by 7:15 a.m. She saw 25 patients after that. She stated that some doctors arrived at the news conference after working 12-hour shifts or before their shifts started. 

Dr. Naveen Reddy, a gastroenterologist in Jupiter, Florida, said he attended the news conference and was on time to perform a 7:30 a.m. endoscopy afterward. “So, there was not even a delay in care,” Reddy said. He said that he went on to see patients in his office, several more at a surgical center and then visited two hospitals. 

Tenet Healthcare’s public relations director, Shelly Weiss Friedberg, confirmed the news conference was not a hospital event or a walkout. 

The doctors “held the event at 6 a.m. before office hours so it wouldn’t interfere with patient visits,” she said.  Buczyner said the mischaracterization of the event had diluted the news conference’s objective to encourage vaccinations and had led to harassment.  “The hospitals and our offices are receiving hate calls,” Buczyner said. “This was supposed to be a heartfelt positive message.” 

Source: U.S. News & World Report