Opinion | Do as we do, not as they say: Stanford affiliates contradict Stanford’s COVID-19 policies

Opinion by Mallory Harris
Sept. 5, 2021, 6:13 p.m.

As a Stanford student, I’ve appreciated the University’s unambiguous commitment to universal, basic COVID-19 precautions. Throughout this pandemic, Stanford has relied on evidence-based advice from faculty experts to prevent large outbreaks on campus and keep us safe from COVID. In a recent email regarding Stanford’s preparations for the fall quarter, Provost Persis Drell summarized the University’s position, asserting, “We know that the combination of vaccination, mask wearing and testing provides powerful protection against COVID.” Meanwhile, however, people I care about deeply have been denied these protections and forced back into unsafe schools and workplaces. As a student, it has been discouraging to witness multiple Stanford affiliates repeatedly leveraging the University’s name through national media appearances, policy advising and expert-witness testimony to attack the same measures being implemented on our campus.

The only time that Stanford publicly stated that an affiliate’s statements were “inconsistent with the university’s approach” was in a Nov. 2020 response to Hoover Fellow and former White House COVID-19 Advisor Scott Atlas’s tweet calling for the people of Michigan to “rise up” against public health interventions. The University clarified, “We support using masks, social distancing, and conducting surveillance and diagnostic testing.” Unfortunately, “inconsistencies” between Stanford’s policies and some affiliates’ advice to the broader public have persisted, which warrants further examination.

Stanford was one of the first universities in the country to require vaccines for students, faculty, and staff. For this practice, Professor Jay Bhattacharya singled out Stanford in an op-ed and characterized policies like ours as “ill-advised” and “unethical.” He also advised against vaccination for anyone who has had COVID, claiming (despite evidence to the contrary) that “it simply adds a risk, however small, without any benefit.” Bhattacharya provided affidavits echoing these claims in support of lawsuits against Michigan State University’s and George Mason University’s vaccine requirements, which mirror Stanford’s policies. At the same time, Bhattacharya recently cited Stanford’s vaccine requirement as a reason he feels comfortable returning to in-person instruction this fall.

Moreover, Bhattacharya and other Stanford affiliates have repeatedly spread false and misleading claims about vaccine safety and efficacy. From his large platform on Twitter, Professor Michael Levitt has posited that vaccine-attributable deaths may be significantly underdetected, vaccines are a money-making scheme by big pharma and that the vaccine’s main mechanism is the placebo effect (despite being vaccinated himself and occasionally praising the vaccine’s apparent effectiveness).

The evening after the FDA granted full approval to the Pfizer vaccine, Bhattacharya appeared on Fox News to assert that the approval was too fast and that we lack sufficient data on safety and efficacy of the vaccine. These statements are debunked by Stanford Healthcare and the Stanford Center for Health Education’s Digital Medic Initiative, which affirm the COVID vaccines are safe, effective and well-researched. Indeed, Stanford Medicine helped lead Phase-3 trials for the Johnson and Johnson vaccine and pediatric trials of the Pfizer vaccine. Disturbingly, the latter trial was attacked on Fox News by Atlas, who baselessly accused researchers of violating medical ethics and characterized a clinical trial participant as “brainwashed” and “psychologically damaged.”

Stanford affiliates have also publicly attacked surveillance testing programs, even as Stanford itself continues to conduct testing through an entrance testing program for arriving students and a weekly testing requirement for all students, faculty and staff. A recent university-wide communication from administrators announced additional testing requirements for non-students, explaining, “Our university leadership and medical professionals have concluded that community-wide surveillance testing will provide a meaningful layer of protection.” The next day, Bhattacharya penned an article in a British tabloid criticizing such programs as “useless” and “actively harmful.” Previously, Levitt amplified claims that presymptomatic and asymptomatic transmission are negligible, relying on misinterpretations of others’ work and directly contradicting statements by the scientists involved.

These claims have extended into policy advice. In October of 2020, while Stanford offered free, voluntary testing for faculty, staff and postdocs, and required weekly surveillance testing for students, Atlas used his position within the federal government to urge governments throughout Florida to roll back their asymptomatic testing programs. During a roundtable with Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, Levitt advised against testing and contact tracing. During the same roundtable with DeSantis, Bhattacharya advised against requiring tests before medical procedures. This Florida policy was cited as a driver of unsafe working conditions that led to 35 nurses from a single hospital quitting. By contrast, a COVID-19 test is required before most medical procedures at Stanford hospital.

Stanford’s stance on masks also diverges sharply from public statements and policy guidances issued by these Stanford affiliates. Stanford leadership has repeatedly affirmed that masks are effective. In a recent campus conversation, School of Medicine Dean Lloyd Minor stated that the “probability of transmission is dramatically lowered in a masked environment.” Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne also has clarified Stanford’s stance: “we believe, based on science-informed public health guidance, that they do inhibit the spread of the virus.” A new randomized trial led by Stanford researchers found “strong evidence that mask wearing can interrupt the transmission of SARS-CoV-2.”

Meanwhile, a series of tweets by Atlas — opening with, “Masks work? NO!” — were removed from Twitter for misinformation. Levitt mused on Twitter about whether masks can induce hypoxia and shared a study — which has been retracted — that claimed masks increase carbon dioxide inhalation. Incidentally, upon that study’s publication, Bhattacharya appeared on Fox News to discuss this study as evidence of dangers to children, likening masks to “child abuse.” These comments were never revisited after the paper’s retraction weeks later, and these claims contradict statements by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control.

As of Aug. 2, Stanford is under an indoor mask mandate issued by the county that applies to everyone over the age of two. Santa Clara County Public Health reinstated this indoor mask mandate as the “least disruptive and most immediately impactful additional measure” to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In a town hall with Governor DeSantis that was removed from Youtube for spreading medical misinformation about the efficacy of masks, Bhattacharya claimed, “masks not only have not been effective, but have been harmful.” He reiterated this claim in a follow-up piece for the Wall Street Journal, claiming the “benefits of masking children are small to none; the costs are much higher.” He affirmed this stance once again in a July town hall with DeSantis, stating it is, “on net, not a good idea to mask children.” He further claimed that the Delta variant “does not change the calculus” on whether to require masks, even while Stanford’s communication on reinstating face coverings invoked the need to “minimize the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant” in light of an uptick in hospitalizations connected to this variant. Later that week, DeSantis passed an executive order blocking schools from mandating masks. Bhattacharya served as an expert witness for the defense in the ensuing lawsuit by parents fighting this executive order, testifying that “the marginal benefit of masks … is very close to zero.”

Research on improving and critically evaluating current public health measures is vital, and Stanford faculty members have undertaken vital work to develop safe and affordable protocols for manufacturing and reusing masks, to examine potential alternative strategies for vaccine allocation and to study the performance of rapid, at-home COVID-19 testing kits. The Stanford affiliates mentioned above, however, have frequently bypassed the realm of scientific exploration and peer review to bring fringe positions directly to national media and policymakers. A judge in Florida recently noted that the evidence brought in the mask mandate ban case by the defense, which featured Bhattacharya as its sole scientific expert witness, “reflects a minority, perhaps even a small minority of medical and scientific opinion.” As official University communications have stated, the combination of testing, masks and vaccinations are allowing us at Stanford to move safely forward with in-person activities and lift alternative social distancing measures like business closures and remote education (measures that the same affiliates have strongly criticized and opposed).

University affiliates can, and often even should, disagree with their institution’s policies. Indeed, members of our community have repeatedly organized for changes to Stanford’s policies, advocating for revisions to the campus compact to protect survivors of sexual violence and prevent students from being evicted, protesting an inequitable vaccine priorization algorithm, raising concerns about move-in policies, advocating for greater protections for campus workers, critiquing the hasty nature of this winter’s cancellation of in-person activities for undergraduates and striking for enhanced COVID protections for resident assistants. It is important to note that these other efforts have been characterized by direct, public dialogue with Stanford University leadership in efforts to make their policies better. But, with the exception of a single article mentioning Stanford’s vaccine mandate in a list including other universities, Bhattacharya, Atlas and Levitt have not engaged with Stanford’s masking, testing or vaccination measures. 

Instead, they have used cable news, podcast appearances and social media to tell people outside the University that such public health measures are ill-advised. And they have gone to government officials elsewhere, most notably in Florida, to push them to strike down policies that align with Stanford’s. Especially from within the confines of a wealthy, elite university, there is a disconnect between staying silent about public health measures — and protecting yourself — while simultaneously critiquing those same measures — from which others stand to benefit. Indeed, DeSantis himself noted this discrepancy last fall during a roundtable and extended an offer to Bhattacharya and Levitt that was declined: “if you guys really want to have in-person, we’d definitely be able to find spots for you in Florida.”

Masking, vaccination and testing requirements are not controversial at Stanford. As a recent email from University leadership noted, the University community has overwhelmingly followed basic health protocols. 95% of people using the self-reporting tool required for on-campus activity have been vaccinated, and “individuals on campus have been taking requirements for face coverings seriously.”  As a Stanford student, I’m immensely privileged to have access to tremendous resources and a supportive community who have helped keep me safe throughout this pandemic. I recognize the enormous sacrifices our local healthcare workers have made over the past year and a half, and I hear their calls for continued caution.

I’m grateful to be surrounded by people who understand the importance of universal safety precautions to protect one another. In turn, for the past year and a half, I have carefully followed public health recommendations and University guidelines to protect those around me, including the people mentioned here — even as they work to undo these protections for others.

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