Lacey Henn

Masked second grade students sit in Lacey Henn's class at Eastern Lancaster County School District's Brecknock Elementary School on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020.

THE ISSUE

As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Nicole C. Brambila reported Saturday, the Pennsylvania Department of State “is investigating a complaint about a Lebanon County doctor who offered a free-to-download, signed, no-questions-asked medical exemption for children to opt out of the state’s new mask mandate. Filed with the Department of State by Jason Fritz on Sept. 6, the complaint alleges Dr. Joel E. Yeager issued physician orders for individuals who are not his patients and for whom he has no medical history.” The state Department of Health’s mask mandate for K-12 schools, early learning programs and child care facilities took effect Sept. 7. The link for Yeager’s signed exemption form was taken down sometime Friday.

The website of Heritage Family Health in Lebanon County, a practice led by Dr. Joel Yeager, is filled with misinformation about masking, the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 vaccines.

It includes an explanation — if you can call it that, because it runs counter to modern medical practice — for why the practice’s staff members do not routinely wear masks and gloves, even in this pandemic.

And it cites a group called America’s Frontline Doctors, a right-wing political organization that is “the 21st-century, digital version of snake-oil salesmen,” as Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia University, told Time magazine. America’s Frontline Doctors was founded by a physician who was indicted for taking part in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

The website for Yeager’s practice serves up a dizzying amount of dangerous nonsense, but it does answer our question about why a doctor would offer parents a no-questions-asked form for getting their children exempted from the state mask mandate.

It’s because he clearly has an ideological agenda.

Yeager defended the presigned blanket exemption by asserting that a medical examination should be unnecessary for a child to be exempted from masking, and said the requirement was indicative of the “overmedicalization” of American culture.

“It doesn’t really take a doctor to certify that a child has an asthma or an anxiety or an allergic diagnosis, for example!” Yeager said in an email to LNP | LancasterOnline. “Parents — who know their kids far better than their doctors — are certainly the most capable of making that determination in this case.”

If your doctor hands out exemption forms without seeing or knowing the patients involved, you should choose another doctor.

As parents, we may have some insights about the symptoms our children are experiencing, but if we didn’t attend medical school, then we shouldn’t be diagnosing our children. And most of the parents we know don’t want that responsibility — it is reassuring to be able to rely on the expertise of pediatricians. That’s not “overmedicalization” — that’s understanding the limits of our knowledge and realizing that checking WebMD doesn’t make us doctors.

If Yeager thinks that everyone can be their own physicians, that might say something about his medical training.

According to the Heritage Family Health website, Yeager attended an international medical school that also admitted his wife, even though she didn’t have a college degree. Which doesn’t suggest that the medical school had high standards for entry.

If Yeager thinks asthma is a sufficient reason to grant a student an exemption to the state mask mandate, he should consult with doctors trained in treating lung diseases.

As we noted in our editorial Sunday, doctors who treat asthma and other lung diseases actually advise their patients to wear face masks to protect against COVID-19. We cited research presented at this year’s convention of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. It found that wearing a mask, “which helps to slow the spread of COVID-19, does not impact the oxygen saturation of the wearer, regardless of if the individual has asthma or not,” according to the academy’s website.

So we’re glad that the Pennsylvania Department of State is investigating the complaint against Yeager regarding his exemption form. As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Brambila explained, that agency “is charged with protecting the public by licensing business and health professionals. It is the state Board of Medicine that regulates medical practices in Pennsylvania and has the authority to take disciplinary or corrective action against licensees.”

The complaint was filed by Jason Fritz, an administrator of a Facebook page that supports science-based COVID-19 mitigation strategies in Manheim Central School District.

A respiratory therapist who has treated COVID-19 patients, Fritz clearly understands the seriousness with which any exemptions to the state’s mask mandate ought to be handled. He understands the stakes involved.

We agree with his assessment that Yeager’s mass medical exemption form was an unethical political stunt.

And we’re relieved that, as LNP | LancasterOnline reported, officials at a number of Lancaster County school districts — including Donegal, School District of Lancaster, Eastern Lancaster County, Pequea Valley, Cocalico, Ephrata Area, Penn Manor, Columbia Borough, Elizabethtown Area and Lampeter-Strasburg — are aware of the Heritage Family Health mask exemption and indicated they will not accept it.

A mass email message from Manheim Central Superintendent Peter Aiken to parents said documentation of a medical or mental health disability is required before approving an exemption.

“Unfortunately, many online forms do not meet these conditions,” Aiken said in an email obtained by LNP | LancasterOnline. “Specifically the ‘Heritage’ form, ‘Certification of Need’ form, religious requests, or notes without details surrounding a medical or mental health condition or disability do not meet this requirement.”

The state mask mandate was imposed because the highly transmissible delta variant of the novel coronavirus has led to a worrying COVID-19 surge. Lancaster County’s rate of new cases and rate of people being treated in hospitals are at their highest levels since late April, according to state Department of Health data.

A mask is a simple and effective tool in the fight against COVID-19. But for some twisted reason, masks have been weaponized as instruments of this nation’s political and culture wars.

Yeager seems to be an eager participant in those political and culture wars. He disseminates misinformation about COVID-19, the vaccines and masking. He cites quacks and charlatans instead of reputable medical sources. And he sought irresponsibly to aid parents riled up over the state mask mandate.

The Heritage Family Health website says that the practice’s lax masking policy is “rooted in the ancient Hippocratic Oath of ... first do no harm.”

But, contrary to popular belief, “first, do no harm” is not part of the Hippocratic Oath.

A modern version of the oath, however, does ask doctors to swear to respect “scientific gains” and to prevent disease, whenever they can.

Dr. Yeager should read that oath sometime.

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