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Spokane health board member who spread misinformation at May Day stay-home rally draws criticism from colleagues

Dr. Jason Kinley, a naturopathic doctor with a practice in Spokane, speaks before a crowd of protesters who were marching against the statewide COVID-19 shutdown Friday, May 1, at the Spokane County Courthouse. He questioned the policies behind the  statewide shutdown. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

As several hundred protesters rallied at the Spokane County Courthouse on May 1 demanding that Gov. Jay Inslee lift his stay-home order, some elected leaders who serve on the local board of health noticed the familiar face of Jason Kinley among the dense, mostly unmasked throng.

“Isn’t that the gentleman that was just appointed to the board?” Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney, who was there to promote the efforts of local officials, remembered asking Millwood Mayor Kevin Freeman as the crowd dispersed.

It was. And he had just sounded off on a number of things that contradict accepted public health advice and the mission of the Spokane region’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kinley, a naturopathic doctor since 2016, was appointed to the Spokane Regional Health District’s Board of Health in December. In that role he helps set local public health policy. Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns, who appointed Kinley, said he did so in part because Kinley was the only applicant.

Kerns and other board members recall Kinley asking thoughtful questions since his first meeting in January, and that he had ideas about promoting healthful eating. Nothing he said raised any red flags in regards to his stances on public health issues, a number of officials said.

A health board meeting held via Zoom the day before the protest followed that pattern. Kinley asked questions about local suicide-prevention efforts, the use of antibody testing and high-dose intravenous vitamin C as a treatment for COVID-19.

And Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz had a thoughtful answer for most of them. When he didn’t, he said he’d look into it.

The next day Rep. Matt Shea announced to hundreds of protesters – among them children, business owners, conspiracy theorists, conservative religious leaders and members of far-right organizations – that he had a medical professional and “good friend” who doesn’t agree with pandemic-related public health efforts.

Kinley, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article, grabbed the microphone with a smile and then launched into a minuteslong polemic deriding stay-home orders and widely accepted public health guidelines offered at the state, local and national level.

Some of the topics he had asked Lutz about were then used as ammunition for Kinley to attack local and state initiatives.

Without referring to Kinley directly, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has referred to high-dose Vitamin C and other unproven treatments discussed by Kinley at the protest as “snake oil medicine.”

Some of what Kinley said at the May 1 rally was true, according to public health and medical experts, but those statements were often followed by unproven public health claims, misinformation and potentially harmful medical advice.

Many local leaders say it undermines the public health mission of Spokane health board, as well as the efforts of many others in the community working on the regional COVID-19 response at the health district and regional Emergency Operations Center.

Now, more than ever, they say, is the time for leaders to embrace sound medical advice to present a unified voice to lead Spokane through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Setting the record straight

“We have suppressed life to prevent illness, but in so doing tragically created additional health problems,” Kinley told the protesters at the beginning of his speech.

That may be partly true – some hospitals are concerned treatment for serious health problems may be dangerously delayed due to a myriad of issues surrounding the pandemic – but much of what followed was laden with conjecture in falsities.

“Suicides are up,” Kinley declared, citing a news report from Oregon, before critiquing the Spokane Regional Health District’s response to mental health issues.

He told protesters he is a health board member and that at a recent meeting no one had a concrete plan to address mental health issues exacerbated by pandemic-related issues.

There is no evidence that suicide rates in Spokane have climbed during the pandemic, according to Kuney. Furthermore, a 40-plus person task force at the regional level is working to address a potential rise in mental health issues.

Lutz told Kinley during that meeting that health officials are closely monitoring emergency room data and other evidence that would show an increase of suicide attempts or suicidal ideation.

At the protest, Kinley also criticized Inslee for his goal to have a vaccine or widely accepted treatment for COVID-19 before Washington fully reopens.

“It’s a virus. Look at any other virus out there,” Kinley told protesters. “There is no widely accepted treatment.”

However, that isn’t quite true.

Therapies and drugs for the majority of viruses fight symptoms and work to support the body’s natural immune response, according to health officials. There are also targeted antiviral treatments for diseases such as HIV and influenza.

During his speech, Kinley discounted the dismissal of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-inflammatory medication known for treating malaria and linked to an increase in risk of death for some COVID-19 patients, and promoted another unproven method to protesters: high-dose vitamin C.

Kinley also has told people via Facebook that he will provide the treatment at his clinic. During the protest he criticized public health officials for not discussing it more.

So far there is no evidence from U.S. hospitals that the experimental treatments provide any benefits to COVID-19 patients, said Dr. Deborah Wiser, a public health expert and chief clinical officer at CHAS Health. She also said treatment strategies are generally discussed within hospitals, not among public health officials.

Lutz informed Kinley of many of those facts during the health board meeting as well.

“On some (treatment) protocols I have seen IV vitamin C. I’ve also seen, interestingly enough, hydroxychloroquine, in light of the fact that we know people have actually died taking hydroxychloroquine,” Lutz said.

During the protest Kinley also made misinformed statements about antibody testing and its role in contact tracing.

He said if he performs the test, which isn’t recommended by local officials or necessarily covered by insurance, he would be required to perform contact tracing if someone had the novel coronavirus. He then claimed that smartphone apps for contact tracing will soon become mandatory.

So far antibody tests have only been used for studies of community prevalence of COVID-19 and not contact tracing, Wiser said. And though there are some voluntary apps available for contact tracing, she is not aware of any efforts to make them mandatory.

Kinley also shared with protesters his personal doubts regarding the effectiveness of people wearing face masks in public to suppress the spread of disease.

But researchers who modeled the effectiveness of masking found that when both 50% of the population and 80 to 90% of the population practiced social distancing and masking with no lockdown, it would result in a “substantial reduction of infection.”

“And we’ve seen this trend in some other communities that have universal mask wearing,” Wiser said.

Additional models show the lack of masks could lead to further community spread.

Wiser said Kinley’s comments reflect the moral line between individual patient health and privacy versus public health.

For example, Wiser said people wearing masks are helping to protect the public, not necessarily themselves. Those individuals who don’t wear a mask exhale, cough and sneeze into air that others don’t necessarily have a choice to avoid, risking public health.

“If enough individuals make a choice for public protection, then the public benefit is seen,” Wiser said. “But if an individual was put first in those situations, then disease can be spread.”

Nomination to the board

The board seat Kinley filled earlier this year sat vacant for months following the resignation of Dr. Donald Condon, a local family physician with more than 40 years of experience, according to Kerns, the county commissioner.

Kerns said he reached out to a number of local medical professionals who might have similar expertise to Condon’s, but no one was interested.

As other board members called on Kerns to fill the spot, he said he only had Kinley’s application to consider. He said Kinley’s medical experience as a naturopathic doctor from the last few years was a plus.

But a naturopathic doctor is not the same as a medical physician.

Stephen Pakkianathan, president of the Spokane County Medical Society, said medical doctors are the best equipped to be leaders on health care issues, though he noted naturopathic doctors have valid experience in their own field.

As opposed to medical doctors, Wiser said naturopathic doctors often focus on herbal remedies, supplements and non-FDA-approved treatments, along with hands-on treatments like acupuncture and soft-tissue manipulation.

For that reason, Wiser said it was unusual for Kinley to discuss an unproven treatment like hydroxychloroquine at the protest.

Medical and naturopathic doctors also diverge in clinical experience.

After earning a degree naturopathic doctors complete one to two years of residency, often in private clinics or schools, according to Wiser. Medical doctors complete at least three years of residency, usually in a mix of inpatient and outpatient settings such as large hospitals and physician clinics.

“He seemed to know public health very well,” Kerns said of Kinley. “He talked about healthy living and some innovative ideas for outreach.”

But when reviewing Kinley’s application materials, Kerns said he did not become aware of Kinley’s ties to Shea.

Kinley appeared on Shea’s radio show in 2018 and cast doubt on the safety of vaccines. He also has appeared in local videos with vaccine opponent Jaclyn Gallion.

He also testified against a mandatory school vaccination bill in the state House in March 2019.

More recently, Kinley appeared on the Christian political talk show “Church and State” – which has shared COVID-19-related conspiracy theories on social media and espouses support for Shea – to discuss the pandemic.

Kerns distanced himself from Shea, who endorsed him in 2016, saying he was concerned about the investigative report that alleged Shea participated in planning political violence and engaged in an act of domestic terrorism.

Kuney and fellow Commissioner Al French said commissioners defer to the nominating commissioner when they approve each of their citizen appointments. Kuney said she looked over Kinley’s resume, while French said he could not recall doing so.

Kuney’s citizen appointee is former Spokane Valley City Council member and retired school administrator Chuck Hafner, who will serve on the board until 2021.

French appointed Andrea Frostad, who has a dental hygiene background, in 2018.

Ted Cummings, a Democrat who has run against Shea in the past and filed to run for Kerns’ seat on the commission Friday morning, said he is concerned that Kinley’s name passed through the nomination process without due diligence on the part of other board members.

“I think it’s outrageous,” said Cummings, who said he supports more local control over COVID-19 measures but respects Inslee’s decisions.

Kerns said many citizen board seats sit vacant for months or only garner one applicant.

“If you have a passion for something, if you are interested in a topic, I always encourage people to apply,” Kerns said.

Pakkianathan said he didn’t know whether Kerns reached out to the medical society about the open board seat and added he was not aware the citizen board position existed.

He said the medical society exists partly as a resource to connect people outside health care with medical professionals.

“Not all physicians want to be leaders or serve on boards, but many of them do,” Pakkianathan said.

Undermining public health

A number of health board members are now concerned about Kinley’s future participation on the board.

“We speak as one voice for the board,” Kuney said. “We really have to be looking out for public health.”

Kuney said she believes Spokane County is ready to reopen responsibly and said elected leaders and health officials are looking for thoughtful solutions as opposed to protesters shouting demands in close proximity.

She said the information Kinley provided was also concerning because he provided his opinion as a medical expert.

Freeman, the Millwood mayor, said he believes the duty of a board member is to support public health.

“And I don’t believe his viewpoints or stance (at the protest) were in support of public health,” Freeman said.

“I was disappointed to see him in that setting, knowing that he is a voting member of the board of health and his views, quite honestly, are in direct opposition.”

Freeman also said he hoped Kinley would rely on sufficient research before discussing unproven treatments.

“His words still carry more weight than others,” Freeman said. “And he needs to be conscious of his position.”

Freeman also said he may further scrutinize Kinley’s positions on health issues in the future.

“We really should be coming together to support those decisions made, especially if you’re representing yourself as a board member,” said Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick, the chairman of the board of health. “We all might not agree on the directions or the decisions made, but we should all work together to move the community forward.”

Wick said the board could have conversations about ethics and the role of board members in light of the situation.

“I don’t get to say who the commissioners appoint to the board, but I think we’ll continue to clarify with all of our board members what the role is and that the spokesperson for the board is our health officer,” Wick said.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, who wasn’t at the protest and hasn’t heard Kinley’s speech, said he is a proponent of political diversity, but that dissent becomes different when people are looking to a leader for medical advice.

“If someone’s really committed to being a political ideologue against public health, that could be a problem,” Beggs said about the potential to undermine funding and the work of staff members. “It’s not that he’s not entitled to his opinion.”

Kerns said it likely wasn’t appropriate for Kinley to participate in the protest but respects his ability to choose what he does in his free time. He noted Kinley never told protesters he was speaking on behalf of the board but was “completely false” in his statements about the local response to mental health issues.

“Is it something I would have done? No,” said Kerns, who later watched the speech on YouTube.

As long as discourse between public health officials, board members and Kinley stays respectful, Kerns said he doesn’t have a problem with him being on the board. He also said Kinley has voted with the majority during all meetings.

Kinley was not present during a special meeting on May 11 where board members voted to send a letter to Inslee requesting the county move onto Phase 2 of the state’s Safe Start reopening plan. Kuney said he emailed the board to say he had patients and was not available until after the meeting.

French, who did not attend a board of health meeting between December and April, said he did not see a problem with Kinley’s participation and said he deferred to other board members who were more equipped to talk about Kinley’s work on the board.

“Everybody is entitled to their opinion,” said French, who noted the importance of having a variety of perspectives on boards. “Isn’t that the First Amendment?”

“To think that everybody is going to sit quietly as their lives are destroyed and feel they have their freedoms taken away is unrealistic,” French said later.

Former Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Kim Thorburn, who was voted out by the health board in 2006 following administrative disputes, said she recognizes the problem posed by board members who don’t support public health.

“I was fairly new when we had a major, communitywide hepatitis A outbreak,” said Thorburn, who noted a few board members were against vaccines.

A number of outbreaks were associated with restaurants, including one that had transmission among employees, so Thorburn said she proposed inviting people to be vaccinated and targeted largely unvaccinated populations for outreach.

“So there was pushback on that from the board,” Thorburn said. “This was all based on data that we were doing this pretty aggressive stuff, but it’s challenging when the politics are brought in.”

But she said she never dealt with a board member advocating against policies at a protest.

“That’s outrageous,” she said.

Thorburn said it’s generally the expectation on boards that once a decision is made, leaders fall in line and support initiatives.

“We need to come together,” Thorburn said. “It’s important to hear (the public’s) concerns, but also for them to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”