CDC Partners With ‘Social and Behavior Change’ Initiative to Silence Vaccine Hesitancy

CDC Partners With ‘Social and Behavior Change’ Initiative to Silence Vaccine Hesitancy
CDC Partners With ‘Social and Behavior Change’ Initiative to Silence Vaccine Hesitancy

Dr. Mary Talley Bowden, a Stanford-educated ear, nose, and throat doctor, isn’t afraid to voice her beliefs. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she repeatedly used her platform on Twitter and TikTok to question the vaccines, promote ivermectin as a treatment, and call out pharmacists for refusing to dispense it.

But her efforts resulted in significant backlash. On Nov. 7, 2021, Dr. Danielle Jones, an OB–GYN who posts under the handle @MamaDoctorJones on YouTubeTikTok, and Twitter—and has millions of followers—put out a video accusing Bowden of “grifting,” rejecting science, and profiting from those who questioned the vaccine.

The video received thousands of comments, including from Team Halo members Dr. Zachary Rubin, a pediatrician, and Christina Kim, an oncology nurse practitioner. Team Halo is a social media influencer campaign formed as part of the United Nations Verified initiative and the Vaccine Confidence Project to increase vaccine uptake.

“That doc is problematic,” Rubin wrote. Kim followed with, “Wow. That ‘doctor’ should have her license revoked.”

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On Nov. 12, 2021, five days after the video, Bowden received a text message from the Houston Chronicle that read: “Hi Dr. Bowden, I’m told you’ve been suspended from Houston Methodist pending further investigation because of your comments on social media. I plan to report that this afternoon but wanted to give you an opportunity to comment.”

Stunned, Bowden responded that the text was the first she had heard of the suspension.

The suspension turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. Over the following months, Bowden’s life was thrown into chaos as multiple social media influencers targeted her. However, the most dogged was a pharmacist named Savannah, who posts under the handle @rxOrcist.

“Savannah has over a million followers. She made a video about me because I have been calling out, online, pharmacists that were refusing to dispense ivermectin,” Bowden told The Epoch Times. “The majority of them happen to be Asian. So she, therefore, concluded that I was racist against Asians and called me a ‘xenophobic, racist [expletive],’ among other things.

“Because she has so many followers, when she makes a video about you, you get an army of people coming after you. A lot of fake people [writing] reviews. That’s one of the biggest things. You can’t get them removed. I’ve tried to get them removed, and I can prove that they’re not my patients.”

Bowden added that she’d been kicked off of TikTok, is on probation on YouTube, had complaints filed against her, and has even been threatened at her office, necessitating that she call security.

In the video, Savannah showed that she reported Bowden to the Texas Medical Board. The board declined to investigate her specific complaints. Still, they are pursuing two other complaints: one filed by Houston Methodist claiming a violation of patient care and one filed by Texas Health Huguley Hospital for prescribing ivermectin.

In the comments of Savannah’s video, Tyler Kuhk, a nurse and previous Team Halo member, according to web archives, and who posts under @thatsassynp, wrote, “How these loons still have licenses is beyond me. Why is an ENT even treating COVID?”

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Doses of a COVID-19 vaccine and vaccination record cards for children under 5 in Seattle in a June 21, 2022, file image. (David Ryder/Getty Images)

Savannah is part of a group called Shots Heard, which calls itself a “rapid-response digital cavalry dedicated to protecting the online safety of health care providers and practices.” Kuhk is also a member. Savannah joined Shots Heard on Aug. 6, 2020, and Kuhk joined on Feb. 13, 2021.

According to its website, Shots Heard is an initiative under The Public Good Projects (PGP), a “public health nonprofit specializing in large-scale media monitoring programs, social and behavior change interventions, and cross-sector initiatives.”

Another of PGP’s initiatives is the Public Health Communications Collaborative (PHCC), which sits within the CDC Foundation—a nonprofit arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established by Congress.

The goal of the communications collaborative, according to PGP, is to decrease misinformation and increase vaccine demand worldwide. And it’s using social media influencers to silence vaccine detractors.

A Tangled Web

PGP is headquartered in New York and was founded in 2013. Its current CEO is Dr. Joe Smyser, who holds a Ph.D. and master’s in public health and completed his postdoctoral training at the CDC.

The Tennessee Department of Health states about Smyser and PGP, “Dr. Smyser has designed some of the United States’ most influential and impactful health campaigns to date in partnership with the CDC, FDA, Kaiser Permanente, Rockefeller, and Humana.”

According to its website, the CDC Foundation is “the sole entity created by Congress to mobilize philanthropic and private-sector resources to support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s critical health protection work.”

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The Emergency Operations Center at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on March 19, 2021. (Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images)

Since its creation, the CDC Foundation has started more than 1,300 “health protection programs” and raised more than $2 billion in support for the CDC.

One of those health protection programs is PGP partner PHCC, which, according to its website, was formed in August 2020 to “provide unbiased communication about the COVID-19 pandemic.” And one of the ways PHCC accomplishes that is by putting out “Misinformation Alerts,” which are powered by PGP.

For example, on March 23, PHCC posted on its website that a “well-known anti-vaccine physician” claimed that COVID-19 vaccines caused an increase in miscarriages and stillbirths. It labeled it a “high-risk alert” and recommended “directly addressing and debunking the misinformation.”

That “debunking,” according to PHCC, includes using a “strong, robust social mobilization” to amplify messages from the World Health Organization and UNICEF, encouraging social media organizations to flag “misinformation,” and promoting “trusted pro-vaccine voices.”

Enter Shots Heard.

Shots Heard and Team Halo

On its homepage, Shots Heard states, “If you stand up for vaccine science, we’ll stand up for you.” It includes a link for people to apply to “sign up to defend vaccine advocates.” It also provides a link to “Alert the Shots Heard Cavalry,” plus a link to a members-only Facebook group, which currently has 1,176 members.

An insider in the group who requested to remain anonymous for fear of being kicked out supplied The Epoch Times with screenshots and messages of the Shots Heard Facebook group.

In one “alert,” a Shots Heard member named Bernadine Huff posted, “It’s important for all of us to stop the insanity and to call out other healthcare workers that don’t believe in science.”

She encouraged Shots Heard members to “report” a graduate nurse named Megan to the Ohio Nursing Board for providing information on how to get a medical exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine. The replies from numerous Shots Heard members simply state, “reported.”

In another “alert,” Shots Heard group administrator Jeff Sykes posts, “Hey Shots Heard, it’s been brought to our attention that Dr. Scott Jensen has been using his online platforms to spread misinformation about COVID-19. … We need your help reporting him.”

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A smartphone with Facebook’s logo is seen with new rebrand logo Meta, in this illustration taken on Oct. 28, 2021. (Dado Ruvic via Reuters)

Shots Heard member Marcia Fiamengo posted, “Need help reporting this group,” and linked to a group promoting ivermectin. Among the many who replied was New York’s Suffolk County Department of Health account, which wrote, “Reported.”

Fiamengo also posted on Dec. 29, 2021, “Fantastic news,” and attached a screenshot of Dr. Robert Malone’s suspended Twitter account. Shots Heard member Angie Anderson states in the comments, “Ooooh, I just reported a few of his posts yesterday. So satisfying when you see real results.”

On March 24, 2022, Fiamengo encouraged Shots Heard members to report Bowden. Again, Suffolk County Health responded, this time with “Done.”

On May 2, 2022, Fiamengo again made a celebratory post. This time for an American Frontline doctor’s being stripped of all state licenses after prescribing ivermectin. “Wooooo!!!! Another one bites the dust!” she wrote.

Shots Heard doesn’t limit itself to reporting single health care practitioners. On Sept. 12, 2021, Shots Heard member Liz Ditz reported a preprint by researchers Dr. Tracy Beth Hoeg, Allison Krug, Josh Stevenson, and Dr. John Mandrola that found that vaccine-induced myocarditis might be worse than COVID-19-induced myocarditis. Shots Heard members were outraged.

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The Twitter sign is seen at their headquarters in San Francisco, on Oct. 28, 2022. (Constanza hevia/AFP via Getty Images)

Moreover, Shots Heard doesn’t limit itself to simply “reporting.” When Bowden posted on Twitter, “Are Americans supposed to take this [expletive]? We don’t want your shot, and we especially don’t want it for our kids,” her post was flagged and flooded with Shots Heard member comments.

Such tactics are called “gang stalking,” Nicole Sirotek, a registered nurse in Nevada and the founder of American Frontline Nurses, told The Epoch Times.

“[Shots Heard members] make videos about [the offending health care worker] saying they need to be delicensed, then [Shots Heard] followers go and hunt down the nurse and swarm the licensing board,” she said.

Sirotek has been the victim of many such attacks from Shots Heard and Team Halo—the two groups share many of the same members.

For example, in December 2022, Team Halo member Jess, who posts under the TikTok handle @jesss2019, doxed Sirotek on TikTok by revealing a previously court-sealed name change. Jess is a “Featured Influencer” for The Health Influencer Council, another PGP project that includes Shots Heard, and This Is Our Shot—a “diverse coalition of health heroes” who engage on social media to combat misinformation and build vaccine trust, according to its website.

An Inside Look

Tyler Hardy, a previous Team Halo member known as “your favorite field epidemiologist” until he ignited a social media firestorm for lying about some of his credentials, told The Epoch Times he’s seen both sides of the social initiates.

“I joined Team Halo at the beginning of 2022, in January. I was invited by nurse Jess [@jesss2019],” Hardy said. “I wanted to educate, and that was why I thought Team Halo would be good because it would give me the exposure to do that.

“As I got behind the scenes of these big creators, right, these people like Dr. Cat and Dr. Jon, Jess, @thatsassynp, I learned that they were, pardon my French, just [expletive]. And they let that stardom of being part of Team Halo get to their head.”

During his time at Team Halo, Hardy said Team Halo members communicated over a private WhatsApp chat. According to Hardy, any time a Team Halo member disagreed with someone online, they would “just put it in the chat, and then every single person in Team Halo would instantly jump on them, get them fired.”

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The social media application logo for TikTok is displayed on the screen of an iPhone in front of a U.S. flag and Chinese flag background in Washington, D.C., on March 16, 2023. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

“They would have all of their followers reach out to the nursing boards to basically attack them in several different ways,” he said. “And so it was very much a situation where if you didn’t support Team Halo, you were part of the problem.

“I mean, Nicole’s [Sirotek] entire life was put on display for the world to see because of Jess and Tyler. They posted her car and where she lives. We knew all about Nicole, like in and out, intimate details of her because of what Jess did.”

Hardy also said that because Team Halo and TikTok had an agreement, TikTok didn’t apply the same community standards to Team Halo members’ accounts.

“When you go with Team Halo, you get special privileges,” he said. “TikTok lets you basically bully and harass people and do things that other people can’t do, and you don’t get the community guidelines violations. You get whitelisted.”

All that changed for Hardy when Savannah accused him of faking his credentials. For that, Hardy explained that another TikTok user harassed him to prove he was a licensed social worker and addiction counselor. However, Hardy didn’t have such credentials and “flashed” another person’s certificates in a TikTok video.

Hardy expounded that he never practiced under that person’s license and did it to “embarrass” the other poster.

“I simply flashed it on the screen as sort of a diversionary tactic, and so I understand that was really stupid,” he said. “It was a combination of constantly being harassed and bombarded, the fact that I was going through a pretty terrible breakup at the same time in my personal life. And also, it was just the stardom of social media. I didn’t think I could do anything wrong.”

Hardy is apologetic about his actions but added that Team Halo allowed it to blow up into something much bigger. Before he officially joined Team Halo, Hardy had to fill out an application that included two forms of identification and his college credentials. Plus, Team Halo contacted his employer.

“I mean, they knew that I was an epidemiologist for the state of Colorado. Like, that was not unclear to anybody,” Hardy said.

Hardy supplied The Epoch Times with his employment offer letter from the CDC Foundation. It’s dated Oct. 27, 2021, and reads, “Dear Tyler, I am so pleased to offer you the position of Epidemiologist for the National Foundation for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Inc. (CDC Foundation).”

Despite the background check, Hardy said he was still accused by other Team Halo members of faking being an epidemiologist. After he was removed as a member, everyone started releasing videos.

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Protesters hold up white pieces of paper against censorship as they march during a protest against China’s strict zero-COVID measures in Beijing on Nov. 27, 2022. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

“Later that afternoon, almost like clockwork, they all started to release videos admonishing me at the same time,” Hardy said. “They were all very scripted. You can tell the difference between when someone speaks in their scripted tone and their natural flow. And I knew exactly what it was because we had been scripted lots of times for Team Halo videos.”

But that wasn’t the end of Hardy’s Team Halo experience.

“Anytime I apply for a job, people know and they call the job ahead of time to tell them that I’m, you know, a monster and that I stole a black woman’s credentials.

“And I’m just like, ‘You know what? I deserve to be held accountable for the lies that I told,’ I’m not diminishing that. But I don’t have to be held accountable by anybody but God and the court system. I’m working on doing better. I’m going to therapy; I’m doing the right thing. But I constantly hear it. I’m constantly harassed by these people online.”

Hardy said about Shots Heard and Team Halo, “If you are against [them], you’re destroyed, and there’s no retribution. Like, there is no retribution whatsoever.”

‘Vaccine Hesitancy’

In addition to its social media initiatives, PGP runs The Public Good News, a nonprofit newsroom “dedicated to accurate health news.” It states of its mission, “The erosion of trust in science and shared facts is a threat to our democratic way of life.” On Jan. 20, it posted an article titled, “CDC data shows bivalent boosters are safe.”

To combat “vaccine hesitancy worldwide,” on April 29, 2021, UNICEF, the Yale Institute for Global Health, and PGP started the Vaccination Demand Observatory.

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People walk past a vaccine clinic during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississauga, Ont., on April 13, 2022. (Nathan Denette via The Canadian Press)

Of its efforts to increase vaccinations, PGP stated, “The coronavirus pandemic is the defining public health crisis of our time, and the U.S.—and the world—is currently in the middle of the largest immunization campaign in history. Yet misinformation threatens these efforts, fueling an ‘infodemic’ of myths, lies, and inaccurate information. In the campaigns below, we use our expertise in media monitoring to fight misinformation and decrease vaccine hesitancy.”

Some of PGP’s recent partners include Google, The Rockefeller Foundation, UNICEF, and Yale Institute for Global Health.

PGP, Shots Heard, and Team Halo didn’t respond by press time to requests by The Epoch Times for comment.

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