MERIDIAN — Brad Bigford thought his Facebook post might get a few comments and “maybe one or two, like, angry emoji faces” from people who oppose vaccinations.
That’s usually what happens when he posts about immunizations, he said.
Instead, the Facebook page for his company, Table Rock Mobile Medicine, became ground zero for the vaccine debate.
Bigford is a nurse practitioner whose mobile health care business goes to people’s homes and other sites in the Treasure Valley to deliver many of the services available at urgent care clinics. He posted Sept. 30 on Facebook that the business will offer flu shots Friday at a local barber shop, Fred’s Reel Barbershop in Meridian.
In the first day, the post reached about 18,000 people. It averaged two comments a minute during waking hours, he said.
By Oct. 2, it had reached more than 70,000 people and gathered 1,800 comments. Bigford had enlisted three other nurses to help manage the flood so he could see patients.
“Ladies, send your guys down for a trim and a flu shot at Fred’s Reel Barbershop in Meridian on Friday from 1:30-2:30,” the post said. “Men are the least likely to get their flu shots but the most likely to complain when they get the flu. They’re low risk for complications but can transmit it to kids and the elderly. We encourage everyone in the family to get vaccinated to help protect those at highest risk. #CommunityImmunity”
Then, tagged onto the end: “Anti-vaxxers need not reply.”
People left positive comments, at first, about his attempt to reach male patients by holding a flu clinic at a barber shop, Bigford said in an interview Tuesday. But a few hours later, “it took a bad turn,” he said. “Within minutes, I was getting inundated.”
The comments came from people around the country — and locals — who oppose vaccinations. A handful left negative reviews of his business, despite not being patients.
“Calling a vaccine-injured person an ‘antivaxxer’ is like using the n-word etc. It is a slur. Employed by bigots,” one person wrote. “These are antiscience bigots. End of story.”
THE VACCINE DEBATE IN IDAHO
Public health officials say the flu vaccine is important because it can prevent infection with the flu virus, keep people from spreading the virus to others, and reduce the risk of hospitalization and serious complications from the flu. “Flu vaccination has been shown in several studies to reduce severity of illness in people who get vaccinated but still get sick,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
Vaccines, like any other medical procedures, carry a minor risk of side effects. The most common is a sore arm or a low fever, the CDC says. Severe side effects such as seizures, an allergic reaction or brain damage are rare or extremely rare, the CDC says.
Many Idahoans choose to get flu shots, but the rates are lower than the federal target of 70%.
About half of Idaho’s infants and children got the flu vaccine during the last flu season, according to the CDC. Only Mississippi and Wyoming had lower rates of flu shots for children 6 months to 17 years old.
Idaho adults get flu shots less often than the national average, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and the CDC. That’s also true of Idaho adults at high risk of serious illness from the flu, like people with cancer or asthma. Fewer than half of those Idahoans get the flu shot in a typical season, Health and Welfare says.
LARRY COOK JUMPS IN
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Early in the flood of comments was prominent vaccine opponent Larry Cook, who runs a Facebook group with about 170,000 members called Stop Mandatory Vaccination and wrote about Table Rock Mobile Medicine on his Facebook page.
“Leave it to the ‘doctors’ to poo poo nutrition — the stuff that actually makes a body work — to favor liability-free products that cause injury and death as their main go-to weapon,” Cook wrote.
Then, around midnight, another group descended on Table Rock Mobile Medicine’s Facebook page: vaccine supporters, some from as far away as Australia. They praised his idea for a barbershop flu clinic and argued with his critics.
“Considering how hesitant and negligent most men, especially single men, are to take care of their health, this is a wonderful idea!” one person wrote. “Hope y’all get a lot of traffic and spread the word.”
Bigford says he doesn’t know almost any of the people who’ve come to his defense.
“These two groups all of a sudden took up their battle in my ‘Fred’s barbershop flu shot for guys’ post,” Bigford told the Statesman.
A TORRENT OF FACEBOOK COMMENTS
Bigford finally stepped away from Facebook and went to bed around 1 a.m. He woke at 6 a.m. — from a nightmare about dealing with the social media reaction.
Overwhelmed by the experience, Bigford reached out on Twitter to Shots Heard Round the World, a new group that calls itself “a rapid-response digital cavalry dedicated to protecting the social media pages of health care providers and practices.”
Bigford is the first health care provider to reach out to Shots Heard for help in the days since they launched, said Dr. Todd Wolynn, CEO of Kids Plus Pediatrics and a founder of Shots Heard.
Wolynn said his pediatrics practice was targeted on social media, Google and Yelp by vaccine opponents in August 2017. Shots Heard was born out of what he learned from that experience, and from research and conversations in the two years since then, he said.
“Nobody is doing anything to prevent or mitigate these attacks,” he said.
The group just published a guide, the “Kids Plus Anti-Anti-Vaxx Toolkit,” that includes advice for health care providers who find themselves in Bigford’s position.
“We’re all about discussing vaccine hesitancy with people,” Wolynn said. But the social media commenters aren’t seeking a true dialogue, he said. “When you’re being attacked and it’s not in good faith ... just ban them, hide them and delete them.”
Bigford followed Shots Heard’s advice and started deleting comments. He also banned an estimated 200 people from his page by Tuesday afternoon, he said.
If a comment is “attacking someone, causing harm or spamming, it’s gone,” Bigford said.
Bigford says his main concern at this point isn’t the vaccine opposition hurting his business; it’s people mistaking his intentions.
“I don’t want people to think this is a political thing I’m doing,” he said. “I am just doing it from a medical perspective. ... If people say, ‘As a result of this post, I’m not going to use your business,’ that’s fine, but I don’t want people to misconstrue that this post is something it’s not.”