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Utah lawmaker invited GOP caucus to reception with COVID-19 vaccine skeptic

The Texas physician has gone on Fox News to claim “there is ... no clinical reason to go get vaccinated” as delta variant spreads.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Rep. Mark Strong, R-Bluffdale, checks in for a vote on the House floor during the second to last day of the legislative session at the Utah Capitol on Thursday, March 4, 2021.

A Utah House representative invited his entire GOP caucus to a Tuesday night reception featuring a presentation by a well-known COVID-19 vaccine skeptic who has promoted unproven drugs to treat coronavirus patients.

A copy of the invitation sent by Rep. Mark Strong to his Republican colleagues states that Utah Open for Business, a group stridently opposed to vaccine mandates, was hosting the event at a Sandy hotel.

State lawmakers, businesspeople and a representative from the Utah Attorney General’s Office were expected to attend the reception to talk about “the federal mandate on businesses and surrounding issues,” the email stated.

They were also slated to hear from Dr. Peter McCullough, a Texas cardiologist who has appeared on Fox News saying “there is ... no clinical reason to go get vaccinated” as the delta variant of COVID-19 spreads.

“He is very well published and the top in [his] field,” Strong, R-Bluffdale, wrote in his email to the House GOP caucus.

Since the pandemic began, McCullough has appeared on right-wing outlets such as Fox News, the One America News Network (OANN) and Newsmax, according to a resume attached to the invitation. Early in the public health crisis, he also appeared before a U.S. Senate committee, promoting at-home multidrug remedies for coronavirus, according to the medical news site Medscape.

McCullough’s former employer, Baylor Scott & White Health, has gotten a temporary restraining order against him to stop him from claiming an affiliation with them. In their lawsuit against him, the health care system alleged McCullough was violating a February separation agreement with them by using his Baylor titles.

Baylor, the largest nonprofit health care system in Texas, claimed in its legal petition that McCullough had conducted “dozens, if not hundreds, of interviews” in the media since his February separation with them. Ongoing confusion about McCullough’s relationship with Baylor would cause the system “irreparable reputational and business harm that is incapable of remedy by money damages alone,” the filing states. “This is particularly true in the middle of a global pandemic.”

McCullough’s attorney has blamed the inaccurate representations of the physician’s employment status on third parties out of his control and labeled the legal action as a “politically motivated attempt to silence” him, according to Medscape.

The medical site reported that in addition to stoking vaccine skepticism, the physician has promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin as COVID-19 treatments, even though the Food and Drug Administration has discouraged coronavirus patients from taking the drugs.

The Tuesday evening reception came as Utah health officials and medical leaders are imploring people to get vaccinated and help stop disease transmission that has pushed its hospitals to the brink.

Kristen Chevrier, a representative for Utah Open for Business, characterized the event as “informational” and said her group was “providing additional expert opinion.” Food and beverages were donated for the invitation-only event, she said.

McCullough, she added, is a “highly credentialed internist, cardiologist, and epidemiologist” who has studied coronavirus and “injuries developing after the COVID-19 vaccine.”

“There are differing opinions in the medical community on the handling of various illnesses and conditions,” she wrote in an email. “COVID-19 is not an exception.”

However, Rep. Suzanne Harrison, a Draper Democrat who works as a physician, said the event was a “slap in the face” to the state’s overburdened health care workers.

“I’m truly disappointed that my colleagues would give any credence to known anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists,” she said in a text message.

The attorney general’s office confirmed that Daniel Burton, chief of policy and legislative affairs, was heading to the event to give a brief update, but it is not clear how many state lawmakers ended up attending.

A spokeswoman for the Utah House GOP said Strong was not involved in organizing the reception and that he simply forwarded the invitation to Republican lawmakers at the request of Utah Open for Business. She also said the reception was not supported or sponsored by the caucus.

In Strong’s email, he encouraged fellow Republican lawmakers to accept the invitation “if you are able to attend so I can be sure there is space for everyone.”

Strong has previously pushed back on public health measures, at one point saying he would refuse COVID-19 testing because he worries it would “put him on the radar” if he came back positive for coronavirus.

“The health department doesn’t need to know if I’m sick or not,” Strong said last year.

Strong could not immediately be reached for comment and, through the House GOP spokeswoman, indicated he was not available for an interview Tuesday evening.

Alliance for a Better Utah, a progressive government accountability group, said Strong’s invitation and Burton’s presence at an event “hosted by an anti-public health group where a known misinformation peddler will present is scary for all Utahns.”

Earlier this month, representatives of Utah Open for Business appeared before a panel of state lawmakers urging them to prohibit employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccines. They were joined by a raucous group of supporters who jeered when legislators challenged their claims.

“Lawmakers should not be listening to people who push inaccurate information about the pandemic, and they certainly shouldn’t be giving them an official platform, as happened recently at the Interim HHS [health and human services] Committee meeting,” said Katie Matheson, deputy director for Alliance for a Better Utah. “In order for us all to get through this, Utahns need policies that are based in reality from lawmakers who listen to experts, not misinformation pushers.”

Utah lawmakers are slated to hold a special committee meeting next week on vaccine mandates as they debate how to respond to President Joe Biden’s vaccination proposals. Under Biden’s plan, businesses with 100 or more employees would have to make sure their workers are inoculated or tested weekly for coronavirus.

Attorney General Sean Reyes has threatened to take legal action against the White House if Biden goes through with the mandate.

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