Former Wausau doctor explains his position after rally speech drew attacks online

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Damakant Jayshi

Even his opponents who attack him, and actively try to do so publicly, recognize his impeccable reputation when it comes to his profession: thoracic surgery.

Dr. Fernando ‘Fritz’ Riveron, born in Cuba and now residing in Florida, practiced medicine in Wausau for many years, earning praise and great respect for his work at Aspirus. He prides himself on his “nuanced” approaches to medical challenges, including Covid-19, and the emphasis on cost-benefit analysis while weighing options for any treatment.

But his roughly 30-minute speech at an anti-mandate, anti-vaccine, and anti-mask rally last weekend in Marshfield hosted by grassroots activist group “Get Involved Wisconsin” sparks much social media controversy. and a strong reaction from a former Democrat. candidate for the state legislature.

The speech and rally come at a time when COVID-19-related cases, hospitalizations and deaths have reached the highest levels since the winter, in large part due to the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus.

Riveron told Wausau Pilot & Review that his speech was not intended to divide, but rather to encourage civility and understanding of dissenting opinions.

“The general theme of my presentation, which I tried to summarize in my conclusion, was that the answer to most medical questions should be ‘it depends’,” wrote Dr Riveron. “Doctors and scientists process probabilities and bell-shaped statistical curves on each set of data. “

In the speech, he mentions extending this understanding to others – but also uses strong language against those he disagreed with.

Writing to Wausau Pilot & Review, Dr Riveron said he regretted twice calling the National Education Association “evil” during the rally, cannot remember in what context he used the term “crazy” (he used it for public school system officials who are insisting on masks in classrooms) and admitted the possibility that insisting that natural immunity is better than immunity provided by vaccines might make people who are hesitant to get vaccinated feel like they don’t need to be vaccinated. Experts have said, including those cited by Dr Riveron, that although natural immunity is long-lasting, it is still advisable to take at least one injection.

Others say that natural immunity is not enough.

The doctor, a Republican who has considered running for Congress in 2019 but no longer has political aspirations, has also battled with people in the “I will not comply” crowd over the masking at the school. He was booed by members of the crowd for suggesting that if masks were the only way to get kids to school, they should because kids suffered in virtual learning situations.

Riveron also advised obese or elderly people to get vaccinated.

But his speech also cast significant doubt on the effectiveness of vaccines for all – advice that flies in the face of public health agencies and credible infectious disease experts, including several that Dr Riveron cited to Wausau Pilot. & Review.

Some of its claims – that the COVID-19 risk for people under 40 years of age or younger is “almost zero” and for those 12 years of age or younger it is “essentially zero” depends on the level of risk discussed. Lisa Lockerd Maragakis, infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins Health System, said young adults are indeed at risk for COVID infections and serious complications.

“Data from one study shows that of more than 3,000 adults between the ages of 18 and 34 who contracted COVID-19 and became sick enough to require hospital care, 21% ended up in intensive care, 10% were placed on a respirator and 2.7% died. », Wrote Professor Maragakis.

Likewise, Aaron Michael Milstone, pediatric infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said children and toddlers “can develop complications that require hospitalization and can pass the virus on to others.”

Dr Riveron defended his statement by pointing out that childhood death rates have “been consistently lower than influenza in this age group.” He also pointed to an American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) article that said that among the states that reported, children accounted for 0.00% to 0.24% of all deaths from COVID-19. “There is considerable debate in the literature – particularly abroad – regarding the logic of vaccination in low risk groups, particularly children,” added Dr Riveron.

The AAP notes, however, that since the start of the pandemic, children represented 14.8% of the total cumulative cases. For the week ending August 26, children made up 22.4% of reported weekly COVID-19 cases.

In recent weeks, a number of vocal critics of the vaccine have shifted their stance after falling ill. Senator Andre Jacque’s wife, R-De Pere, who has been hospitalized since August 16 and was placed on a ventilator several days later, is now urging people to get vaccinated. So have a number of conservative radio talk show hosts including Phil Valentine and others. Several expressed remorse for not urging people to get vaccinated. Still others take the vaccines in secret, fearing they will be ostracized by friends and family.

Scientists and health experts around the world largely believe that COVID-19 is deadlier than the flu, that it is more contagious and that it spreads faster. While the impact of seasonal flu cannot be minimized, symptoms of Covid-19 cause more serious illness and have caused more deaths. To date, the virus has claimed more than 640,000 deaths in the United States and more than 4.54 million deaths worldwide since last year.

Riveron expressed concern about the “dangers of echo chambers in the production of hate, division, disinformation and dangerous polarization.” He said that “the dangerous link between technology policy (social media) and financial interests is perhaps the greatest danger to our democracy.”

As an example of a social media “smart troll vitriol”, Dr Riveron cited a Facebook post by Kirk Bangstad, owner of Minocqua Brewing Company and former Democratic candidate for the Wisconsin Dist Assembly. 34, a race he lost last year. In the post, Bangstad denounces some of the comments made by Riveron, accusing him of spreading disinformation about Covid-19.

“We believe Dr Riveron’s comments are too dangerous to allow him to have a platform – especially because his dangerous opinions are deemed credible given his profession,” Bangstad wrote in his post. “While a heart surgeon is certainly not, by definition, an expert in virology or infectious diseases, the average Joe doesn’t care – ‘he’s a doctor, he knows more than I do, he must be right. . ‘”

Bangstad, which is the subject of a media lawsuit in a libel case, accuses the media of being too weak.

While he has said that people “in America we are allowed to say what we think”, he does not seem to extend that freedom to Dr. Riveron.

Bangstad acknowledged that Riveron had the freedom to speak up, but told Wausau Pilot & Review that spreading harmful information should have consequences.

“If you yell ‘fire’ inside a theater, cause a stampede and people can be injured or die, you should be held responsible,” Bangstad said. “He should go to jail for that.

Bangstad said Riveron’s medical history makes his opinions much more dangerous because he is a doctor.

But Riveron called the vaccines “phenomenal triumphs.” The doctor, however, added the caveat that people should judge for themselves whether or not to vaccinate.

Dr Riveron opposed Bangstad’s attacks on him as well as Bangstad encouraging others on social media to do so. Bangstad, who shared a link to a Department of Safety and Professional Services complaint form against the doctor on his Facebook page, recently doubled down on his statements. “He should lose his medical license,” he said.

Listen to Dr. Riveron’s speech here. His comments begin around 40:40.

Damakant Jayshi is a journalist for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a member of the body of Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project that places journalists in local newsrooms. Contact him at [email protected]

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