Before last year, the public monthly meetings of the board of Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, Florida, were sleepy affairs, typically drawing just a handful of attendees. The hospital, a 98-year-old public healthcare system that serves more than a million patients a year, was considered a crown jewel of the community: A highly rated public safety net institution composed of two hospital buildings and several clinics, its core mission is to serve people who are uninsured or underinsured. At a typical board meeting, members would discuss the hospital’s priorities, from finding healthcare providers who practiced in specialties that the community lacked to building a new cancer center.
So it came as a surprise late last year when attendance at the board meetings began to grow: More than a hundred people showed up in December’s monthly board meeting, then 200 in January, and 300 in February. The attendees, some traveling from hours away, lambasted the hospital for adhering to the CDC’s recommended Covid protocols, accusing emergency care physicians of murdering patients. “We were getting people complaining, and they’ve never even had a family member in the hospital, and they’re talking about the horrible treatment they’ve received,” Dr. James Fiorica, the hospital’s chief medical officer, told me. “You wonder if there is a different agenda than how we treated the particular patient.”
Indeed, the campaign against Sarasota Memorial appears to be part of a coordinated effort of a varied constellation of right-wing groups and individuals. Some have deep ties to the anti-vaccine movement; others are part of the “parents’ rights” movement that has sought to stack school boards with conservative members; a few are ardent Big Lie promoters with ties to the January 6 insurrection. The result is an increasingly unhinged and threatening campaign against the very healthcare workers who saw the community through the worst of the pandemic, says a hospital spokesperson, Kim Savage. “Our board meetings are open to the public, and for the first time, we feel like we have to wand people,” she says. “We worry that the language these groups use might incite someone who is not stable.”
In years past, the Sarasota Memorial Hospital Board hasn’t been a political group—most of the members were retired executives of local businesses who wanted to give back to their community. But in 2022, recalls Savage, the burgeoning medical freedom movement—which opposed pandemic restrictions such as mask and vaccine mandates and which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also has championed—was having a moment. Four hospital board candidates ran on a so-called medical freedom platform, and three of them successfully unseated former board members. “People were not sure what ‘health freedom’ stood for, but it sounded good,” Savage says.
The Sarasota Memorial Hospital had already developed a reputation in the medical freedom community. In 2021, a woman named Michelle Tavares went on a few right wing shows to accuse Sarasota Memorial of mistreating her father, who was critically ill with Covid. Tavares, it turns out, had been protesting pandemic restrictions since 2020: She was the executive assistant of Sherri Tenpenny, a leader in the anti-vaccine movement who drew media attention for her outlandish claim that Covid vaccines make people magnetic. Tenpenny, who was named a member of the Disinformation Dozen by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, appears to have been part of an effort behind the first protest at Sarasota Memorial in August 2021.
It was likely Tavares’ activism that got the attention of Stew Peters, a far-right live streamer and producer of the viral anti-vaccine movie “Died Suddenly.” In an August 2021 episode of his show, Peters accused the hospital of denying Covid patients ivermectin, the deworming drug touted by former president Donald Trump that has been shown to be ineffective against Covid. “It would appear that the treatment of patients is being deliberately made to worsen the condition of patients reported to be hospitalized with Covid-19.” He went on, “Hitler would be very proud of what’s happening at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.” That wasn’t the only time Peters accused hospitals of withholding ivermectin from Covid patients—he also urged his followers to call and complain to a hospital in Minnesota and another in Virginia, resulting in a torrent of hateful messages at those hospitals, as well. In September 2021, Sandy Hook conspiracy theorist Alex Jones ran a segment about Sarasota Memorial similar to that from Stew Peters.
But it wasn’t until the fall of 2022 that conservative forces in Sarasota began to echo and amplify Peters’ criticisms. One of the first groups to accuse the hospital of Covid malpractice was the Sarasota chapter of Moms for America, a parents’ rights group that had previously organized members to oppose critical race theory and gender-inclusive curriculum, much like the similarly named—but separate—Moms for Liberty. Moms for America supported the medical freedom candidates that joined the hospital’s board, and once they won, in the fall, the group began urging followers to attend board meetings at the hospital.
In November, Sarasota Moms for America chapter head Tanya Parus posted a video in which she said, “Please, please mark every meeting off on your calendar, and do what you can to clear up that time to be at these hospital board meetings.” That was a tried-and-true strategy: Thanks to a boost by Florida governor Ron DeSantis, parents’ rights groups have had great success in flipping school boards. Now some of their members appeared to be moving on to public hospitals, as well, in an effort to mold hospital policy to fit the “medical freedom” agenda.
At the unexpectedly packed meetings in late 2022 and early 2023, Savage recalls, the new medical freedom board members themselves were generally courteous. The tone of the meetings, however, gradually began to change. Attendees used the public comment period to demand an investigation into the hospital’s Covid protocols, all of which reflected the CDC guidelines. So in early 2023, the hospital conducted a months-long, peer-reviewed investigation, with data provided by the healthcare consultancy Premier, Inc. The conclusion was that the hospital’s Covid outcomes were excellent by national standards: 91 percent of the 13,000 patients the hospital treated survived—a mortality rate 24 percent lower than the national average, according to the review.
But the medical activists weren’t satisfied.
With an unprecedented 300 people at the February meeting, attendees lit into Sarasota Hospital physicians, accusing them of killing Covid patients. A tweet claiming that one speaker had been thrown out of the meeting for criticizing the hospital’s protocols went viral. (According to Savage, the speaker was escorted out because he attempted to whisper something in the ear of a board member, which alarmed security officers.)
WATCH! I interviewed Dr Littell after he was tossed out of the meeting at Sarasota Memorial Hospital where Covid Protocols were being reviewed
Part 1 of 2 pic.twitter.com/nGsW0Q37I7
— Chris Nelson 🇺🇸 🏝 (@ReOpenChris) February 22, 2023
That’s when things got really chaotic. Mike Flynn, a resident of Sarasota, former national security advisor to former President Donald Trump, and conspiracy theorist extraordinaire, tweeted after the February board meeting, “I attended this meeting and the Sarasota Memorial Hospital took what could have been a rebuilding of trust and further damaged this institution with a ‘fox inside the henhouse investigation.’” He added, “Their little report is not the end of the investigation. More to follow.” A few days later, he tweeted, “It may be time to privatize this hospital.” Flynn has established an organization in neighboring Venice called The Hollow 2A, whose mission is to help “Americans gather to lawfully take back our country.” In addition to advocating for Second Amendment rights, as the name suggests, the group has also called on its members to attend school board meetings as well as the Sarasota Hospital board meetings.
Dr. Jane Ruby, another live streamer and right-wing political pundit who has a show on Peters’ network, devoted a February episode to Sarasota Memorial, titled “Killing Hospital Begins Cover-Up.” Ruby referred to a doctor at Sarasota Hospital as “an arrogant, condescending piece of crap,” and criticized the staff. “You enabled that hospital to not only murder innocent people but to make millions of dollars doing it,” she thundered. “They’re coming for all of you. You’re all the targets now.” Stew Peters posted the episode to the 270,000 followers on his Telegram channel. In her own channel, which has 103,000 subscribers, Ruby named individual Sarasota Hospital doctors as being complicit in harming patients.
Over the next five days, board members and hospital employees received dozens of harassing messages. “The hate in these messages was hard to bear for our staff,” Savage says. “It was like a targeted hate campaign.” Many of the messages had threatening tones, suggesting that the doctors who had failed to prescribe ivermectin would be punished. While there is no indication callers were told what to say, many messages followed a similar pattern. The voicemails Savage shared with Mother Jones would begin with what seemed like a polite introduction to some constructive criticism. But then, the callers would devolve into ad hominem attacks. “Good morning, are you a patient advocate?” began one voicemail. It went on, “They hung people at the Nuremberg trials when they were found guilty. They used piano wire. So do you want piano wire or hemp or nylon rope?”
In addition to the onslaught of similar messages to hospital staff, commenters flooded physician reputation sites—where patients leave reviews, like Yelp for doctors—with one-star reviews for Sarasota Memorial Hospital doctors.
Fiorica and Savage are bracing for more: The next board meeting is coming up on March 20, and a protest has been planned beforehand—Savage expects the attendees to move from the protest to the board meeting. According to the Facebook event page, protesters will have a chance to “learn about the egregious behaviors behind your local hospital doors” and “demand Gov. DeSantis investigate these hospitals.” So far, neither DeSantis nor his surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, have commented on Sarasota Memorial. Nor have any of the organizers who have been contacted by Mother Jones responded.
The organizers of the rally planned for March 20 are Mike Flynn’s group The Hollow 2A, Moms for America, and a third, the Zelenko Freedom Foundation, a medical freedom group named after the late Vladimir Zelenko, the New York doctor who originally suggested the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a Covid cure to the Trump Administration in 2020. Though Vladimir Zelenko died of lung cancer last year, the foundation says it is carrying on his legacy through selling telemedicine consults and a line of supplements, including one for children. Zelenko supplements are also sold through the website of The Wellness Company, the anti-vaccine medical practice that recently offered free care to those affected by the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Dr. Peter McCullough, the Wellness Company’s chief medical officer and a scion of the anti-vaccine movement, tweeted about the February board meeting to his 782,000 followers. “Ashamed for [Sarasota Memorial] and all those in the room,” he wrote. “Hospital boards are obligated to hear all points of view on therapies to help patients.”
In a press release about the March event, the Zelenko Freedom Foundation wrote, “We believe Sarasota Memorial Hospital, by implementing Covid-19 hospital protocols resulting in injury and death while ignoring proven early treatment options, has engaged in reckless behavior resulting in irreparable harm. Patients have reported being denied effective treatments such as Ivermectin, Hydroxychloroquine, and other treatments while being subjected to experimental therapies some of which were proven deadly in previous studies.”
The co-chair of the Zelenko Freedom Foundation board is Ann Vandersteel, who promoted the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory during the 2016 presidential campaign, which asserted that Comet Pizza, a Washington, DC, pizza restaurant was secretly hosting a ring of child predators superintended by Hillary Clinton. Vandersteel is also a member of the sovereign citizen movement, a fringe group that believes members are exempt from US laws. The Zelenko Freedom Foundation’s executive director is a Florida life coach named Cindy Chafian, who was subpoenaed by Congress for her early involvement in planning the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. Chafian is also the director of coalitions and engagement of Moms for America.
In an email to Mother Jones after this story had been published, Vandersteel noted that the Zelenko Freedom Foundation “did not nor would promote, incite or engage in any harassment of Sarasota Memorial Hospital employees or anyone else anywhere in the world.” She also clarified that she does not consider herself a sovereign citizen, but rather an American State National, which the Anti-Defamation League describes as “a term used by sovereign citizens and some QAnon adherents to refer to themselves, reflecting their belief that they are not citizens of what they perceive is an illegitimate, tyrannical federal government.”
This, of course, comes at the end of a grueling three years for the hospital, during which the staff worked overtime to serve patients as the pandemic raged. Now, those same providers are bearing the brunt of the harassment campaign, fielding hostile messages from people outside of their own community. “All we can think about is that if people google Sarasota Memorial, this is what they’ll see,” Savage says. “Who wants to come to a community under fire? We’re just trying to hunker down and do what we’re here to do, which is take care of patients.”
Fiorica also is concerned about the long-term effects of all this on the medical community. “I worry that if this continues we’re going to lose physicians,” he says. “How would you feel if you went to a meeting and someone called you a murderer right to your face?”
The aggrieved attendees at the meetings, the hostile voicemails, the one-star reviewers—the campaign was designed to look like a groundswell of complaints from people who were fed up with a hospital that just kept dropping the ball. In reality, it is the work of groups that “all have different angles and goals and targets,” Savage explains. “But they’re all coming together right here.”
This story has been updated.