Damakant Jayshi

Even his opponents who attack him, and are actively trying to do so publicly, acknowledge his impeccable reputation when it comes to his line of work: thoracic surgery.

Dr. Fernando ‘Fritz’ Riveron, born in Cuba and now residing in Florida, practiced medicine in Wausau for many years, earning accolades and widespread respect for his work at Aspirus. He prides himself for his “nuanced” approaches to medical challenges, including Covid-19, and emphasizing cost-benefits analysis while weighing options for any treatment.

But his roughly 30-minute speech during an anti-mandate, anti-vaccine and anti-mask rally last weekend in Marshfield organized by the grassroots activist group “Get Involved Wisconsin” is drawing sharp controversy on social media and heavy backlash from a former Democratic candidate for the state Legislature.

The speech and rally come at a time when COVID-19 related cases, hospitalizations and deaths have risen to the highest levels since winter, largely due to the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus.

Riveron told Wausau Pilot & Review his speech did not aim to divide, but rather to encourage civility and understanding differing opinions.

“The overarching theme of my talk, which I tried to encapsulate in my conclusion, was that the answer to most medical questions should be ‘it depends’,” Dr. Riveron wrote. “Doctors and scientists deal with probability and statistical bell curves on every data set.”

In the speech, he mentions extending that understanding to others – but also uses strong language against those with whom he disagreed.

Writing to Wausau Pilot & Review, Dr. Riveron said he regretted twice calling the National Education Association “evil” during the rally, did not recall in what context he used the term “crazies” (he used it for public school system officials who are insisting on masks in classrooms) and admitted the possibility that insisting on natural immunity being better than immunity provided by vaccines could give an impression to vaccine-hesitant people that they do not need to take the shots. Experts have said, including those cited by Dr. Riveron, that while natural immunity is durable, it is still advisable to take at least one shot.

Others say natural immunity is not enough.

The doctor, a Republican who considered running for Congress in 2019 but no longer has political aspirations, also sparred with people in the “I won’t comply” crowd over masking in school. He was booed by crowd members for suggesting that if masks were the only way to get children to school, they should do so since children have suffered in virtual learning situations.

Riveron also advised that people who are obese or are elderly should indeed take the vaccine.

But his speech also cast significant doubt on the efficacy of vaccines for all – advice that runs counter to public health agencies and credible infectious disease experts, including several which Dr. Riveron cited to Wausau Pilot & Review.

Some of his claims – that the COVID-19 risk for people under 40 or below is “almost zero” and for those 12 or younger it is “essentially zero” depends on the level of risk being discussed. Lisa Lockerd Maragakis, an infectious disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Health System said younger adults are indeed at risk of COVID infections and serious complications.

“Data from one study shows that of more than 3,000 adults ages 18 to 34 who contracted COVID-19 and became sick enough to require hospital care, 21% ended up in intensive care, 10% were placed on a breathing machine and 2.7% died,” wrote Prof. Maragakis.

Similarly, Aaron Michael Milstone, a children’s infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said children and toddlers “can develop complications requiring hospitalization, and can transmit the virus to others.” 

Dr. Riveron defended his statement by pointing out that mortality rates in children have “consistently been less than for influenza in this age group.” He also pointed to an article from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) which said that among the states that reported, children were 0.00%-0.24% of all COVID-19 deaths. “There is considerable debate in the literature – especially from overseas – regarding the logic of vaccination in low-risk groups, particularly children,” Dr. Riveron added.

AAP, however, notes that since the pandemic began, children represented 14.8% of total cumulated cases. For the week ending August 26, children were 22.4% of reported weekly COVID-19 cases.

In recent weeks, a number of outspoken critics against the vaccine have changed their position after becoming ill. The wife of Sen. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, who has been hospitalized since Aug. 16 and was placed on a ventilator several days later, is now urging people to get vaccinated. So have a number conservative radio talk show hosts, including Phil Valentine and others. Several have expressed remorse for not urging people to get vaccinated. Still others are taking the vaccines in secret, fearing they could be ostracized from friends and family members.

Scientists and health experts worldwide largely believe that COVID-19 is more deadly than the flu, is more contagious and spreads faster. While the impact of seasonal flu cannot be downplayed, Covid-19 symptoms cause more severe illnesses and has caused more deaths. To date, the virus resulted in more than 640,000 deaths in the United States and more than 4.54 million deaths worldwide since last year.

Riveron said he is concerned about the “dangers of echo chambers in producing hatred, division, misinformation and dangerous polarization.” He said “the dangerous nexus of tech (social media) politics and moneyed interests is perhaps the greatest danger to our Democracy.”

As an example of “malignant vitriol from trolls” on social media, Dr. Riveron pointed to a Facebook post by Kirk Bangstad, owner of Minocqua Brewing Company and former Democratic candidate for Wisconsin’s Assembly Dist. 34, a race he lost last year. In the post, Bangstad calls out some of the comments made by Riveron, accusing him of spreading misinformation about Covid-19.

“We think Dr. Riveron’s comments are too dangerous to allow him to have a platform – specifically because his dangerous views are deemed credible given his occupation,” Bangstad wrote in his post. “Although a heart surgeon is definitely not, by definition, an expert on virology or infectious diseases, the average Joe doesn’t care – ‘he’s a doctor, he knows more than me, he must be right.’”

Bangstad, who is facing a lawsuit from a media outlet in a defamation case, accuses the media of being too weak.

While he said that people “in America, we’re allowed to speak our minds,” he doesn’t appear to extend that freedom to Dr. Riveron.

Bangstad acknowledged that Riveron has the freedom to speak his mind, but told Wausau Pilot & Review that spreading harmful information should result in consequences.

“If you shout ‘fire’ inside a theater, cause a stampede and people might get hurt or die, you should be held accountable for that,” Bangstad said. “He should go to jail for that.” 

Bangstad said that Riveron’s medical background made his views much more dangerous because he is a doctor.

But Riveron has called the vaccines “phenomenal triumphs.” The doctor, though, added the caveat that people should judge for themselves whether or not to vaccinate.

Dr. Riveron objected to Bangstad’s attacks on him as well as Bangstad encouraging others on social media to do so. Bangstad, who shared a link to a complaint form from the Department of Safety and Professional Services against the doctor on his Facebook page, recently doubled down on his statements. “He should lose his license as a doctor,” he said.

Hear Dr. Riveron’s speech here. His comments begin at about 40:40.

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.