At least three elected officials who oversee the Montgomery County Hospital District are contradicting their own experts by spreading misinformation about COVID-19 on Facebook and questioning the effectiveness of face masks and vaccines, according to a review of their social media posts by the Houston Chronicle.
As county health officials stress the importance of masks, social distancing and the new COVID-19 vaccines, their messages are competing on social media with rampant falsehoods about the pandemic.
Some falsehoods are being spread by the hospital district’s own board members. The board’s chairwoman, Georgette Whatley, said one of her posts sparked complaints from critics who called for her removal from the public health agency.
“They were offended because I am anti-mask,” Whatley wrote last month on Facebook. Her agency operates the county’s ambulance service, offers educational programs and manages the Montgomery County Public Health District, a separate agency that provides COVID-19 updates to the public. Despite its name, the hospital district no longer owns a hospital.
Two other members of the seven-member board have taken to Facebook to vent their frustrations about medical experts, “big pharma,” and the “fake news” media.
“More and more evidence is coming forward that we should NOT partake in the COVID vaccine,” board member Bob Bagley wrote in an Aug. 3 Facebook post. Bagley said in December that he wouldn’t be taking the vaccine — the same month the hospital district posted a YouTube video extolling the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.
Another board member, Brent Thor, shared a meme on Facebook that spread misleading information about COVID-19’s death rate. In another post, he shared a meme that said: “The ones selling the panic are the same ones selling the vaccine.”
All three board members, who serve in unpaid positions, set their Facebook posts to “public,” meaning they can be viewed by anyone. Bagley and Thor did not respond to phone, email and Facebook messages for this article. Whatley referred questions to the hospital district.
Misti Willingham, a spokeswoman for the district, said the agency respects the First Amendment rights of elected officials to express their opinions. She emphasized that no board members have attempted to prevent health authorities from doing their jobs in providing accurate information to the public.
“They do not interfere with our-day-to day work or our mission,” Willingham said.
About 70 percent of Montgomery County voters supported Donald Trump in the last presidential election. Trump seldom wore face masks himself and clashed with Dr. Anthony Fauci and other health officials in his administration.
County Judge Mark Keough, who contracted COVID-19 last month, has criticized Gov. Greg Abbott’s lockdown orders and encouraged residents to ignore warnings from health officials and celebrate the holidays together.
Montgomery County has reported 332 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began, but its infection and fatality rates are lower than most Texas counties, according to data published by state health officials. On a per capita basis, it ranks 187th out of 254 counties for cumulative coronavirus cases and nearly last for fatalities.
Corinne Berry, a founding member of the Society for Health Communication and vice president of the Maryland firm CommunicateHealth Inc., said it’s easy for catchy, fact-free memes to drown out medical experts who are trying to provide truthful, vetted advice to the public.
“We have the burden of science and proof,” Berry said. “Sometimes that means that we can’t get messages out as fast as those who are intentionally spreading disinformation. Truth does not have to be on their side.”
In numerous Facebook posts, Bagley incorrectly claimed the “fake news” media and health experts were involved in a global conspiracy to spread fear about COVID-19.
“We’ve been lied to by the media and the medical field, with their propaganda and skewed reporting since the beginning,” Bagley wrote in September.
Bagley, a retired veteran and an avid Trump supporter, repeated the president’s claims touting the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, which contradicts more cautionary guidance from the FDA.
More recently, Bagley wrote on Facebook that he attended the Jan. 6 pro-Trump rally at the Capitol that turned into a violent insurrection. He told his Facebook followers he was standing on the grounds of the Capitol when the crowd was tear-gassed by police. Bagley didn’t say he fought police or entered the besieged building.
Most responses to Bagley’s Facebook posts were supportive. But critics occasionally chimed in. When Bagley shared an anti-vaccine YouTube video last month that was later taken down by Facebook because it violated its policy against misinformation, he complained that the “paid socialist fact checkers didn’t like it.”
“Huh… and you’re on the MoCo Hospital District Board?” wrote one Facebook commenter, William Bingman, who said he’s studied molecular biology and that the video Bagley shared was “hogwash.”
“I’m so glad you’re the expert,” Bagley replied. “Bless your heart.”
‘Spreading the fear’
Whatley shared a link to “Plandemic,” a debunked documentary about COVID-19, and in November she insisted she “will not succumb to the hysteria” or “believe fake news.” Instead, she planned to spend the holidays hugging family members to embrace the joys of the season, she wrote.
Meanwhile, health officials across Texas were urging residents to limit contact with friends and family during the holidays. Last week, COVID-19 hospitalizations in Texas had increased by 30 percent since Christmas.
In an interview with the Golden Hammer, a conservative website in Montgomery County, Whatley accused the government — including the county’s public health district — of fear mongering.
”I believe the government is spreading the fear,” Whatley told the website in August. “The stores requiring masks everywhere you go are spreading the fear, and so are the people becoming indignant, if you happen to walk into the store and aren’t wearing the mask. Our own Public Health District in Montgomery County is spreading the fear.”
Whatley said she opposed mandatory mask requirements, even after the hospital district told its own followers on social media that wearing masks helps reduce the spread of the virus. Over the holidays, Whatley jokingly shared a picture on Facebook of a Christmas tree adorned with face masks she said she refused to wear. She later said “liberal strangers” complained to the hospital district and demanded her removal from the board.
“Clearly they don’t understand organizational charts or the election process,” Whatley wrote on Facebook. Whatley said the hospital district has no authority to remove her from the board since she was elected by taxpayers.
“Honestly, I’m not even anti-mask,” she wrote. “I’m just against the requirement. I stay away from people and don’t really go out in public much. If people CHOOSE to wear a mask, it’s their right to do so and I will support them in their decision to do so.”
Whatley said she has “absolutely nothing” to do with the day-to-day affairs of the hospital district and praised the “highly competent and experienced people” who work there.
But she has no intention of keeping quiet.
“I didn’t agree to give up my right to freedom of speech when I was elected to this board in 2004,” Whatley said. “I am still entitled to my personal opinions.”
Jordan Rubio contributed to this report.