An Ontario nurse who works as a provincial long-term care home inspector is under investigation after she used social media to spread health misinformation, including the myth vaccines cause autism and claims the coronavirus pandemic is a conspiracy whose threat to public health has been exaggerated.
"Mandating masks is irresponsible, negligent, and dangerous," Kristal Pitter wrote in a Facebook post earlier this week, linking to a YouTube video that purports to detail the "health risks" of masks.
Pitter is a nurse practitioner in good standing with the College of Nurses of Ontario (CNO). There is no evidence she has ever harmed or imposed her personal beliefs on a patient.
Most recently, Pitter has been working as a provincial long-term care home inspector since September 2018, according to CNO records and her LinkedIn profile.
She is under investigation by her employer as of this week because of her social media posts, CBC News has learned.
Social media posts raise concerns
Pitter clearly identifies herself as a nurse practitioner on the same Facebook account she uses to spread false health information.
Pitter rails against vaccines and public health measures taken against COVID-19 on social media, claiming the pandemic is an attempt by a cabal of global elites to control the world.
"Knew this from the beginning. Numbers were grossly inaccurate," Pitter wrote about an article that claims official coronavirus deaths are exaggerated.
The controversy raises a number of questions about the public boundaries between personal and professional life and the thorny issue of whether one's personal beliefs have any sway on their ability to fulfil their professional obligations.
Leading advocates in the field of nursing and elder care have expressed concern that someone in a regulated medical profession, such as nursing, who speaks as an authority on health would be promoting fringe theories on social media that aren't rooted in science.
"I was alarmed by thinking that a colleague that is a nurse would propagate such misinformation and not use evidence," said Doris Grinspun, the CEO of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario.
"I understand about freedom of expression, of course I do, but to promote and propagate misinformation about COVID and other things?"
"It concerns me hugely."
CBC News made multiple attempts to reach Pitter for her side of the story, but she declined to comment. She then contacted Tillsonburg OPP.
Police told a CBC News reporter he would be charged with harassment if Pitter, who is a public official, was contacted again in regards to this story.
Leading voices in nursing, eldercare express concern
Grinspun said even though Pitter is working in more of an administrative role than a clinical one, the fact she's made her views known on a platform as public as Facebook raises questions.
"I'm just surprised that the ministry, unless they're completely unaware, has an individual working for them who doesn't follow basic evidence at this point."
Some of Pitter's posts on Facebook have been flagged as "false information" by the social networking site, including one post that states tech billionaire Bill Gates plans to use a COVID-19 vaccine to permanently alter people's DNA.
She describes herself on her LinkedIn profile as "mature, responsible, competent and compassionate individual who desires to have a positive impact on the world."
Inspectors crucial in a system battered by scandal, deaths
As a healthcare sector, long-term care has been battered by a number of recent scandals, emerging from the long shadow of the inquiry into serial killer Elizabeth Wettlaufer's actions less than a year ago only to have the coronavirus pandemic erupt in March.
Since then, the illness has spread like wildfire through the system causing thousands of frail and elderly people to become seriously ill or die from COVID-19 at a rate in Canada that's twice that of other OECD countries.
The virus has also laid bare what our seniors sometimes have to endure after a recent military report called conditions "horrific" inside some facilities.
Laura Tamblyn Watts, a lawyer and the CEO of Canage, Canada's national advocacy centre for seniors, said having provincial inspectors who believe in evidence-based science is crucial in reviving an underfunded, understaffed and largely broken system.
"We're really relying on the professionalism and standards of those individual inspectors," she said.
"I think it's deeply concerning whenever we're seeing healthcare professionals providing information which is not evidence-based."
According to officials with the Ministry of Long-Term Care, one of the primary responsibilities of a long-term care home inspector is to "monitor, evaluate and promote the health, safety, quality of care and rights of residents in long-term care homes by consistently applying the established methodology and principles."
Tamblyn Watts said all staff need to be in lockstep with the latest science and the official doctrine of infection control during the pandemic.
"If you have somebody who's in a position of power and authority who is wearing their medical hat, or in this case, an inspector's hat, but is publicly saying opposite information to what medical evidence is, we're in a real difficult situation."
She said accurate information about vaccinations in particular is especially important as countries race to develop a viable inoculation against the coronavirus pathogen.
"Never before has it been more important that we have the right information about the effectiveness of vaccines than right now in the time of COVID-19."
Health misinformation on the rise during pandemic
Since the global rush for a vaccine began, there has been a renewed push of online health misinformation on social media propagating myths that vaccines are ineffective or harmful or casting doubt on bonafide evidence-based information on COVID-19 through innuendo and rumour.
The increasing amount of false online information over the last decade is why a number of Canadian health agencies, including the Canadian Nurses Association and the College of Nurses of Ontario, have put out position papers on expectations around social media use and ethics guidelines to potentially prevent a single health professional from using their authority to promote fringe theories or misinformation that could tarnish their organization, profession or even potentially damage public health.
"As health-care professionals and leaders, we must be sensitive to the inherent power differentials between care providers and persons receiving care; and as trusted members of the public we need to be cognisant of our unique position to share information," Canadian Nurses Association president Tim Guest wrote in an email to CBC News.
"In an age where information is freely available but not necessarily reliable or accurate, it is an ethical obligation for healthcare professionals to disseminate evidence-based information. This responsibility must be taken seriously, particularly in a time of great uncertainty such as a pandemic."
When asked about Pitter's social media activity, the province's nursing regulator wouldn't comment, citing privacy reasons.
"We cannot comment about a specific nurse," spokeswoman Angela Smith said, noting the CNO's role is to protect the public by addressing complaints about nursing care and a nurse's professional practice.
The Ontario government told CBC News it was unable to comment. "We cannot speak to individual employee matters," the email said.
About the Author
Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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