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Anti-mask, anti-vax views raise concerns

Independent fact-checkers have debunked a number of Janet Presson’s Facebook posts, including this one from July, 2020. Facebook photo Independent fact-checkers have debunked a number of Janet Presson’s Facebook posts, including this one from July, 2020. Facebook photo

One of the loudest voices against masks and vaccines during recent public comment sessions in Haywood County also serves on a nonprofit health care board that’s charged with managing more than $12 million of taxpayer money meant to support public health. 

Comments made by registered nurse Janet Presson at county commission and town board meetings have not gone unnoticed — letters and comments subsequently submitted to The Smoky Mountain News expressed concern that Presson continues in her role a trustee of the Haywood Health Care Foundation and have called for her removal. 

Now, HHF board members are being pressed for answers on apparent contradictions between Presson’s opinions/assertions and the mission statement of the board Presson serves, as well as what, if anything, should be done about them. 

One week after SMN published a story  about Waynesville’s proposed changes to its State of Emergency ordinance, two letters arrived decrying Presson’s service on the HHF. 

“Ms. Presson is an extremist, and her discredited views can have a detrimental effect on the health and lives of our residents,” Bethel resident Tom Tomaka wrote. “While she is entitled to her own opinions, she has no business helping to guide the use of public healthcare funds. Janet Presson needs to be removed from her position on the Haywood Healthcare Foundation at once.”

The second , much longer letter from Haywood resident Jesse-Lee Dunlap, reiterates that Presson is entitled to her own point of view, but questions the wisdom of her continuing service on the HHF. 

“… it is one thing for Joe Public to get up during public comments and say whatever is on his mind, but it is quite another for a nurse, a nurse who sits on the Haywood Healthcare Foundation board, to stand up publicly and deny science,” said Dunlap. “With the power that rests in the hands of Haywood Healthcare Foundation board members, it is important that we have people on the board who rely on data to make decisions. It is obvious that Janet Presson cannot serve in this capacity and needs to be removed from the Haywood Healthcare Foundation board immediately. The well-being of our community depends on it.”

State records show Presson has a nursing license  that expires in 2022. She’s been a frequent presence on social media and at local government meetings contradicting public health officials by opposing mask usage as well as all vaccinations. She also has a child she claims was injured by vaccination. 

Presson’s Facebook page is full of shared posts and memes with messaging indicating that masks don’t work, are child abuse, and should be thrown away, that businesses should have mask-free shopping hours, that people shouldn’t wear masks or vaccinate their children just to make others feel safe, and that since President Trump survived COVID-19 without a vaccine, perhaps one isn’t necessary at all. 

A number of Presson’s posts have been flagged by Facebook as false information, including one that supposed 90 percent of all COVID-19 diagnoses are false positives, and another proclaiming that “Your government is lying, vaccines are poison and masks are useless.”

She also promoted an October 2020 private movie screening in Haywood County featuring the widely discredited views of a former physician who ushered in the modern anti-vax misinformation campaign with a fraudulent study  claiming that vaccines cause autism. 

The Guardian newspaper calls Andy Wakefield a “ disgraced anti-vaxxer ,” based largely on the fact that his 1998 study published in The Lancet is now considered one of the greatest examples of medical fraud in history

Wakefield’s study was funded by attorneys who specialized in suing vaccine manufacturers. Its various defects include a small sample size, poor experiment design and unsupported conclusions based on what the British Medical Journal  calls, “clear evidence of fabrication of data.”

Claims made in the study were subsequently and completely refuted. All but two of the study’s 12 authors retracted it, and in 2010 The Lancet retracted the study altogether. Wakefield also lost his license to practice medicine. 

That movie screening wasn’t even Presson’s first attempt to pass Wakefield’s vaccine misinformation to the citizens of Haywood County. 

In April 2019, Presson and others hosted another movie screening  at the Haywood County Public Library in Waynesville. 

The event got off to an inauspicious start when organizers attempted to ban members of the local media, including SMN, The Mountaineer  and WLOS-TV, from recording or filming during the event. 

Then-Haywood County Public Health Director Patrick Johnson — who’s since retired — was also there and may have been onto something when he told SMN how he felt after the unsuccessful and unlawful attempt to prohibit recording. 

“Well, that bothered me from the get-go … if they didn’t want it recorded, they didn’t want the general public to know what they were going to be saying, so that concerned me,” Johnson said. 

What ensued was a discussion, slide presentation and another Andy Wakefield movie rife with half-truths, misinformation and debunked studies by discredited former medical professionals. 

The information presented during the event held a façade of legitimacy, but simple research into the background of the people presenting it — Dr. Bob Sears , Dr. Christopher Shaw and former film student/Dr. Phil show producer Del BigTree  — reveals disturbing credibility issues similar to those of Wakefield. 

“There’s a pattern to the anti-vax movement and to the arguments,” Johnson said the day after the event. “In retrospect, that was a very slick anti-vax presentation. They cherry-pick little things about vaccines for some misleading suppositions.”

Presson’s role in advancing dubious medical misinformation is now well-known in this community of 60,000, but judging by public response to her activism, her other role — serving as a trustee on the HHF board — isn’t. 

 

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Janet Presson.

 

Or, wasn’t. 

According to the HHF’s website , the organization was founded in 1978 to support the county’s nonprofit hospital by fundraising. But when that hospital was sold to Duke LifePoint in 2014, HHF had to shift gears. 

“It is really an offspring of the Haywood Hospital Foundation, which could no longer directly support the hospital after the sale to the for-profit entity Duke-LifePoint,” said Kirk Kirkpatrick, longtime Haywood County commissioner and HHF board member since March 2019. “HHF was formed for the specific purpose to support healthcare in Haywood County by utilizing and investing the funds received from the sale of the Hospital.”

Those funds — roughly $13 million — are profits derived from monies paid over the years by Haywood County taxpayers. That initial nugget of cash can’t be spent, but it can be invested and earn interest. 

In a normal year, that’s roughly $200,000 depending on market trends. Additionally, HHF sometimes receives large private donations on the order of $50,000 or more and holds some events of its own to raise money, including a golf tournament. 

All told, HHF gives away somewhere in the neighborhood of $350,000 a year to area nonprofits that advance HHF’s mission  “ … to improve the health status of Haywood County, its individuals and families through educational programs, grants, scholarships and leadership opportunities … quality healthcare is essential to a productive life. It is our goal as a foundation to assist individuals and agencies in a number of ways, all with the ultimate goal of fostering a healthier community for our present and future generations.”

More than 40 community partners, including Haywood Pathways Center, Haywood Vocational Opportunities and domestic violence group REACH benefit from this funding. 

In May 2019, HHF also stepped in to save the day  with a $5 million pledge toward a badly-needed workforce development building at Haywood Community College that will be used to train medical professionals for high-paying jobs. 

Decisions on which organizations get what are made by a board of trustees. 

“There are a minimum of 20 board members and a maximum of 24,” Kirkpatrick said. “They serve three-year terms. New trustees are selected by the then-serving board. Candidates are nominated by the nomination committee and then selected by the board members.”

The HHF board doesn’t have a board attorney per se but Kirkpatrick, an attorney by trade, says he occasionally gives his opinion as a board member on legal matters. 

The proceedings of the HHF board are public record, as are its finances, according to Kirkpatrick.  

Currently, the board is chaired by Anthony Sutton, who is also a Waynesville alderman. He’s been on the HHF board since February 2018, spending most of that time as its chair. 

In April 2019, Sutton nominated Presson for a spot on the board. 

“My knowledge of Ms. Presson at the time was that she was one of the founders of [intellectual/developmental disability services company] A Small Miracle,” Sutton said. “She’s a registered nurse. She’s also a veteran and she was and remains on the board of the Special Olympics statewide. That was the reason I made the recommendation.”

Current and former public health officials suggest it’s hard to reconcile Presson’s very public anti-mask, anti-vax advocacy’s alignment with the HHF’s community health mission to foster “a healthier community for our present and future generations.” 

Haywood County’s Health and Human Services Medical Director Dr. Mark Jaben, the local face of pandemic response, was asked last October about this apparent contradiction. 

“There is no scenario I am aware of where not wearing a mask is beneficial to community health,” he said. 

Around that same time, then-Haywood County Public Health Director Patrick Johnson shared his thoughts on the matter. 

“We know that wearing a mask is the best thing we have until we get a vaccine,” Johnson said. 

 

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Presson’s Facebook profile is filled with startling claims. Facebook photo

 

Johnson also shared anecdotes about a maskless outdoor party with 15 people that resulted in three positive diagnoses of COVID-19, and a person who traveled to a 2,000-person event in Tennessee and returned with an unwanted souvenir that they then unwittingly shared with Haywood friends, neighbors and co-workers. 

Most disturbingly, Johnson shared an account of what it’s like to die of COVID-19. 

“All of these folks have a respiratory illness. It’s people who are gasping for breath and being on a ventilator or having the ventilator removed and being a ‘do not resuscitate,’ which is what happened to one of these people,” he said. “It’s … it’s an awful way to go.”

When asked if he thought Presson’s opinions were in accord with the HHF’s community health mission, Sutton instead offered HHF’s stance. 

“I can tell you the Healthcare Foundation is a firm believer in wearing masks and following the three W’s [wear a mask, watch your distance, wash your hands],” he said. “We are also a huge advocate of vaccinations and the COVID vaccine. We would encourage anyone at which time it’s possible to get a vaccine.”

As calls for Presson’s removal from the HHF board began to emerge last week, Sutton was reluctant to endorse or denounce them publicly. 

“I do have a personal view on her remaining on the board, but it would have to be the full board that makes that decision,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable speaking directly against a board member, but I can tell you personally, I believe in vaccines and I will be one of the first when I’m able to get a vaccine to get a vaccine.”

Definitively, Presson has never represented herself as a member of HHF or claimed to speak on behalf of HHF during her personal advocacy. She’s also served as a national coordinator for the Defeat Autism Now! conferences and as the health editor of WNC Woman Magazine, and hasn’t claimed to speak on behalf of them, either, however Kirkpatrick said he was aware of informal chatter about how Presson’s continuing affiliation with HHF might be perceived. 

“There have been discussions among board members outside of meetings regarding her opinions and how they reflect on the board and how her continued service on the board may be viewed by others negatively,” Kirkpatrick said. 

Sutton said there was also a conversation about Presson during a meeting, shortly after she joined the board in 2019. No formal action ensued, and according to Sutton, she hasn’t been formally asked to resign. 

Kirkpatrick said he wouldn’t ask Presson to resign and didn’t want her opinions to be discounted even though they differ from his own. 

“I am always open to other viewpoints on good health and so long as her opinion does not harm or deter the entire board from working for the good health of Haywood County, I would not push for her to resign,” he said. “I myself differ in my views from Ms. Presson’s regarding wearing masks and taking vaccines. I support both but do not turn a blind eye to the possible damaging side effects of both. To me the issue is one of weighing the pros versus the cons and I weigh those out on the side of masks and vaccines until someone can change my mind with good fact-based science. The problem there is that science and the study of it constantly changes and we are always learning that what we thought was good science and good technique in the past is not as good as we know it to be now. I am sure that will continue to be the case.”

Presson’s first three-year term on the Haywood Healthcare Foundation ends in April 2022. At that point the board has the choice of whether or not to renominate her. A nomination would be subject to a vote of approval by the full board. Board members can serve a maximum of three consecutive three-year terms. 

Learn more about the Haywood Healthcare Foundation at www.haywoodhealthcarefoundation.org

 

Current Trustees of the Haywood Healthcare Foundation

• Anthony Sutton, Chair

• Dr. Barbara Parker, Ed.D, Vice-Chair

• Julie Davis - Treasurer

• Teresa Liner - Secretary

• Hylah Birenbaum

• Neil Budde

• Julia Freeman

• Jennifer Heaberlin, DO

• CeCe Hipps

• Jonathan Key

• J.W. “Kirk” Kirkpatrick, III

• Linda Nulsen, M.Ed MSW

• Janet Presson, RN

• Carmine Rocco

Lifetime Trustees

• Phyllis Prevost

• Charles Thomas II, M.D.

Honorary Trustees

• Allen and Cassie Braswell

• Peggy Melville

• Judy Ross

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