COLUMBUS, Ohio – Two years ago, a Cleveland area physician strode into the House Health Committee room and told state lawmakers that COVID-19 vaccines magnetize their hosts and “interface” with cell towers.
Her comments, the subject of widespread ridicule, triggered a swarm of 350 complaints to the State Medical Board and a chain of events that led to the regulators indefinitely suspending the medical license Wednesday of anti-vaccine activist Sherri Tenpenny.
The board, charged with protecting the public and overseeing the licensure of Ohio’s doctors, yanked Tenpenny’s license on procedural grounds rather than the substance of her comments. Board staff found she flouted investigators who came to visit, declined to answer written questions, and objected wholesale to the regulators’ inquiry.
“Dr. Tenpenny, neither you nor any doctor licensed by this board is above the law, and you must comply with the investigation,” said Dr. Jonathan Feibel, an orthopedic surgeon and medical board member. “You have not done so, and therefore, until you do, your license will be suspended.”
Dr. Amol Soin, a pain management specialist and board member, said at the hearing that the suspension has nothing to do with vaccines, magnets, or cell towers, but about the board’s basic duty to oversee conduct of physicians and physicians’ responsibility to comply.
“The license to practice medicine is not a right. It’s a privilege. A privilege that is earned, and a privilege that you have to uphold,” he said. “And as you get that license, and as you obtain that privilege, you consent to certain reasonable things. And a reasonable thing you consent to... is to cooperate when someone complains about you. In this case, 350 complaints. It is a very reasonable thing to cooperate in that scenario.”
The actions are the latest showing of medical boards wrestling with the issue of how to address physicians who make fringe claims about vaccines during health emergencies. Some organizations, like the public healthy policy advocates at de Beaumont Foundation, have demanded stiffer and swifter recourse.
While board members emphasized the punishment is connected to the procedural issues and not the bunk health claims, the medical board’s staff makes clear the basis for its inquiry in their formal report. They asked Tenpenny what evidence she had that vaccines make people magnetic or interface with cell towers, and for more information about the claim that major metro areas are “liquifying dead bodies and pouring them into the water supply.”
Her attorney, Tom Renz, made a last-ditch effort to talk down board members in front of a crowd of roughly 40 supporters who attended the typically sleepy administrative hearings. He called the probe a form of “harassment” on her “free speech rights.” He said Tenpenny’s civil rights were violated, and his good faith objection to the inquiry was a showing of cooperation.
He said the board was making its decision absent any showing of harm or fraud to a patient.
“This appears very much like a lynch mob,” he said.
Tenpenny declined to answer questions after the hearing.
As noted by a lawyer from the attorney general’s office, Tenpenny failed to attend either of her two hearings before board staff. Her attorneys even failed to show up to the second. Forcing protracted litigation every time the board wants to interview physicians it regulates, he said, would render the body unable in practice to carry out its duties.
The board’s vote was unanimous, besides for three abstentions. Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis, who sits on the board as a non-medical representative, did not attend Wednesday’s vote.
Tenpenny’s troubles began when Ohio House Rep. Jennifer Gross, a West Chester Republican, invited her to address lawmakers in support of Gross’ legislation to block schools, hospitals, governments, and others from imposing vaccine requirements.
It was June 2021, just as scarcity of COVID-19 vaccines began to wane and health officials focused on the yeoman’s work of convincing hundreds of millions of Americans to take up the novel products. However, many conservatives sought to undercut this campaign, often under arguments about “medical freedom.” Tenpenny, speaking before a crowd of anti-vaccine activists, warned of purported dangers of vaccines with a firehose of debunked and misleading statements.
“I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures all over the internet of people who have had these shots and now they’re magnetized,” Tenpenny said to the panel of lawmakers.
“They can put a key on their forehead and it sticks … There have been people who have long suspected there’s an interface, yet to be defined, an interface between what’s being injected in these shots and all of the 5G towers.”
The comments backfired. Gross’ bill stalled out after Tenpenny’s comments. And they sparked the investigation that would cost Tenpenny her license.
Tenpenny had long worked as an influencer of sorts in anti-vaccination corners of the internet. She operates various businesses revolving around “alternative” treatments in lieu of vaccination. She does media appearances with conservative conspiracy theorists including Mike Lindell or Alex Jones. In a tweet earlier this year, she referred to COVID-19 vaccinations as “#Genocide.”
Neither Gross, nor Ohio Advocates for Medical Freedom President Stephanie Stock, who posed for photos with Tenpenny after the 2021 hearing, attended Wednesday’s meeting.
After Tenpenny made the comments that sparked her regulatory problems, she showed no signs of regret. Despite lampooning media coverage, Tenpenny emailed Gross to thank her for being “strong and brave” in allowing her to testify, according to The Ohio Capital Journal. Tenpenny doubled down on her theories.
“Don’t let them bully you or disparage me,” she wrote. “We’re on to something here… and the LOUDER they scream, the more they are trying to hide. I stand by everything I said today. I put out FACTS and HYPOTHESIS (points to ponder),” she wrote. “God Wins.”
While the board’s ruling doesn’t prevent her from writing her books like “Saying no to Vaccines: A Resource Guide for All Ages,” it blocks her from practicing medicine or selling her various anti-vaccine goods and services under the title of physician, a powerful marketing tool.
Before her vaccine activism, Tenpenny graduated from the Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1984. She worked at the Blanchard Valley Regional Health Center in Findlay, Ohio, rising to become the chief of family practice and emergency medicine and director of the emergency medicine department, according to the medical board’s report. While the document doesn’t note when she left the facility, it states she started the Tenpenny Integrative Medical Center in 1994.
Jake Zuckerman covers state politics and policy for Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer.