The day before she entered the Capitol with the throngs of insurrectionists, Dr. Simone Gold gave a speech in which she urged people not to get the coronavirus vaccine. “You must not comply if you do not want to take an experimental biological agent deceptively named a vaccine; you must not allow yourself to be coerced,” Gold shouted at a rally held outside the White House.
Gold was spreading her brand of politicized medical misinformation during the siege, too. In the FBI’s flier of those most wanted for “violence at the United States Capitol,” Gold, No. 21, is pictured holding a megaphone, which she apparently used to a give a speech inside the federal building, as the Washington Post was first to report.
An emergency physician who has spent much of the past six months promoting the drug hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment despite the overwhelming evidence that it is not effective and causes serious side effects, Gold is at the forefront of a right-wing medical misinformation effort that is now shifting its emphasis to the coronavirus vaccine.
Gold cautions that one should never call it just “the vaccine,” though. “Always use the word experiment when you talk about this. Always,” she told an enthusiastic audience in Rodney Howard-Browne’s church in Tampa Bay, Florida, on January 3. “The socialists win the language wars.”
Howard-Browne’s church is an apt setting for this latest battle in the war over the language and science of the coronavirus pandemic. An evangelist who has laid hands on President Donald Trump, Howard-Browne has been sharing Covid-19-related conspiracy theories with his followers since at least March, when he told them that vaccines for the coronavirus would “kill off many people” and that Covid-19 is a “phantom plague” designed to shut down churches. Howard-Browne was arrested and jailed in March for violating safety codes by encouraging his followers to shake hands — public health restrictions that he said were for “pansies.” Prosecutors later dropped the charges because he was allegedly taking steps to enforce social distancing. But in the January 3 video, audience members sat close together without masks.
America’s Frontline Doctors, a group Gold founded last summer, tries to put a professional medical spin on this kind of defiance of public health measures. Members appear in white coats and tout their institutional affiliations while disavowing masks and social distancing and pushing unproven Covid-19 treatments. Although most of these “frontline” doctors have no experience treating Covid-19, Gold apparently does, having worked at Adventist Health Bakersfield hospital in California. A spokesperson for the hospital told The Intercept in a text that Gold did her last shift in the “summer of 2020” but did not say when she began treating patients there or why she left. Two other hospitals Gold has mentioned have already distanced themselves from her.
The Medical Board of California, which licenses physicians, is aware of Gold’s presence at the siege on the Capitol and is “looking into it,” according to Carlos Villatoro, public information manager for the board. Gold and America’s Frontline Doctors declined to comment for this story, but a statement on the group’s website about the events at the Capitol says that “no AFLDS members participated in or were a party to any violence or vandalism and any suggestion to the contrary is false and misleading.”
The apparent success of her efforts to undermine the vaccine seems to hinge in part on Gold’s ability to turn her marginalization from the medical establishment into credibility in other contexts, particularly on the “alt-right.” Gold told her audience at the Tampa Bay church that she was fired for trying to give her patients hydroxychloroquine and that her dismissal has been “a blessing.”
Gold’s entrée into the world of medical misinformation influencers — she has more than 200,000 followers on Twitter — was largely achieved when Breitbart livestreamed a “white coat summit” she led in July in which she said that hydroxychloroquine was a cure for Covid-19 and that “you don’t need masks.” Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter ultimately removed the video, but not before Trump tweeted several versions of it. Since then, Gold has given herself the unfortunate moniker “the doctor who went viral” and published a book subtitled “My Fight Against Medical Cancel Culture.”
Unfortunately, the efforts of Gold and others to undermine vaccine acceptance seem to be gaining traction. A surprisingly large number of health care workers, the group first offered the vaccine in the U.S., have refused to take the vaccine, with acceptance rates as low as 50 percent in some places. And research has already shown that significant numbers of health care workers cite religious reasons, concerns about personal freedom, and distrust of government claims about the severity of Covid-19 among their reasons for refusing the vaccine.
Gold, who insists she’s not against vaccines in general, says that she opposes the use of the Covid-19 vaccine in most cases because she believes that people under the age of 75 face greater risks from the vaccine than from the virus. This is false. The virus has already killed more than 382,000 people in the U.S., including at least 127,000 people under 75. While the death of a Florida doctor who had recently received the vaccine is now being investigated, there are no confirmed fatalities from either the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccines, which have already been given to some 9 million Americans. Gold also cited a debunked theory that the vaccine might damage the placenta and cause infertility. And she has launched a petition to stop people from being forced to get vaccinated. Despite the fact that no one is being forced to get vaccinated, more than 94,000 people have already signed it.
For physicians who are hoping to put an end to the pandemic, Gold’s influence on the public conversation has been vexing. “She’s a chaos agent,” said Dr. Nick Sawyer, an emergency physician in the Sacramento. “She has created a competitive narrative of what’s true about Covid and vaccines. So many people come into my office and say to me, ‘I don’t know what to believe.’”
Sawyer sees America’s Frontline Doctors’ efforts to minimize the severity of the pandemic as fueled by politics. “They got pulled into this disinformation campaign put forward by Trump to downplay the virus,” he said. But while promoting hydroxychloroquine might be seen as currying favor with the president, who has inexplicably embraced the drug, the efforts to undermine the vaccine are harder to parse politically.
It’s clear that Gold still has deep ties to far-right groups that support Trump. She was one of 27 “extremely pro-Trump” doctors that Republican activist Nancy Schulze proposed to promote the message that it was appropriate to reopen the economy during the surging pandemic. Schulze is a member of the Council for National Policy, an organization of powerful GOP activists on the Christian right. Gold is also involved with the far-right group Turning Point USA and has spread her message on the “Charlie Kirk Show.” Kirk is also a member of the Council for National Policy and boasted on Twitter of sending “80+ buses full of patriots to DC to fight for this president.” His original tweet has since been deleted.
America’s Frontline Doctors’ Twitter account has also been “purged,” according to a January 9 tweet from Gold, who seems to be preparing for the eventual deletion of her own account. After characterizing the removal of social media accounts as censorship and “a danger to your health,” she advised her followers to “protect yourself and your loved ones” by signing up to become a member of America’s Frontline Doctors.