Christine Hartmann Benz, the Perth nurse accused of not injecting a teenager with the coronavirus vaccination, first arose the suspicion of her colleagues when a stream of patients started coming into the Victoria Park clinic she was working at specifically requesting she be the one to jab them.
Ms Hartmann Benz, 51, was arrested this week and charged with gaining benefit by fraud after a doctor allegedly observed her prepare the syringe and insert the needle into a 15-year-old boy’s arm during an appointment last Sunday but fail to actually depress and administer the vaccine.
The doctor who witnessed the alleged vaccine fraud was clinic owner and highly respected GP Dr Sean Stevens who fired Ms Hartmann Benz on the spot and immediately called police. Dr Stevens is also the WA chair of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and since the start of the vaccine rollout has publicly encouraged West Australians to get the jab and spoken about the best ways to tackle vaccine hesitancy.
While Dr Stevens represents the majority of frontline workers who are desperately trying to increase WA’s vaccination numbers, Ms Hartmann Benz’s alleged fraud has lifted the lid on the underground cohort of hardcore anti-vaxxers who are not just opposed to the immunisation but are actively seeking to subvert the rollout.
Melbourne GP Dr Mark Hobart was raided by Victorian Health Department officials this week investigating claims he falsified COVIID records by either handing out fraudulent exemptions or fake vaccine certificates.
There have also been disturbing cases of people attempting to bribe health professionals into giving them the vaccine.
On Wednesday WA police charged a 34-year-old woman from Kalbarri with attempted fraud after she allegedly attempted to bribe a Geraldton pharmacist to falsely administer a COVID-19 vaccine. The pharmacist refused and reported the incident to police.
A 31-year-old man from Port Hedland was also charged with attempted fraud in a separate case on Thursday after he allegedly slipped a note to a nurse at a South Hedland health campus offering her money for a fraudulent vaccine certificate.
The cases of Dr Hobart and Ms Hartmann Benz are going viral within anti-vaxxer social media discussions where they are being heralded heroes.
The three cases this week comes amid an upsurge of online activity by WA-based anti-vaxxers since Premier Mark McGowan announced a majority of professions would be subject to a vaccine mandate.
Nurses and fly-in, fly out workers have been photographed at anti-vaccination protests in recent weeks demanding they not be “forced” to take vaccine they do not trust, but on encrypted online chats their views are even more radical with those claiming to be frontline health workers and FIFOs openly discussing ways to commit vaccine fraud to avoid mandates imposed in their workplaces.
Experts who specialise in conspiracy theories say health practitioners who promote vaccine misinformation are particularly dangerous. While they represent a fringe part of the overall medical community, their voices can be extremely persuasive to those who are vaccine hesitant.
THE MEDICAL UNDERGROUND
Ms Hartmann Benz has now had her registration suspended by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Authority, stopping her from practising anywhere in Australia.
A court was told this week that she had sought and was given permission to give the vaccination to family and friends while she was working at the Victoria Park respiratory clinic.
That included her parents and her husband — chiropractor Dr Gordon Benz.
She allegedly tried to obscure the view of a doctor who insisted on observing when a person known to her visited the clinic on Sunday for a vaccination.
Police are now investigating at least 25 of her appointments from last weekend.
Dr Benz, Ms Hartmann Benz’s husband, remains a registered health practitioner with AHPRA.
In 2019, he wrote to the Medical Board of Australia complaining about their plan to regulate registered practitioners providing “complementary and unconventional medicine and emerging treatments”.
In the letter he claimed vaccines were not safe and called the Medical Board evil.
He also warned “those of us who work in the healthcare system know the truth and we will continue to spread it”.
“The entire argument for vaccination rests on it being ‘safer’ than contracting the disease, though vaccines are NOT safe. Look at the product information, there is risk of harm,” he wrote in the letter, which was published with other submissions on the Medical Board’s website.
“Medical science has been bought out by pharmaceutical companies and interest groups. It has been in some journals. You might like to read some. Never mind the author bias, funder bias, publisher bias and conformational bias, there is just outright fraud and deceit.”
Dr Omar Khorshid, Australian Medical Association President, described Ms Hartmann Benz’s alleged actions as “almost unbelievable” but warned that medical professionals were not necessarily immune to being captured by anti-vaxxer views which he described as being like a “subculture”.
“Not only is (Ms Hartmann Benz’s alleged actions) potentially illegal, almost certainly unprofessional, but it’s also putting the lives of those individuals who’ve availed themselves of her service at risk. If they get COVID, they’re at risk and some of those actually are apparently in that older age group who if they get COVID have a very significant risk of severe disease and death,” he said.
“These kinds of events luckily are extremely rare, but we heard very early in the pandemic of an American pharmacist who was deliberately leaving Pfizer vaccines out of the freezer and then putting them back in, in order to kind of deactivate them. So, there’s definitely some strange individuals that have got views that don’t marry up with the rest of us.”
“It is very hard to understand but one thing we know about the anti-vaxxer movement is it gets people very fired up ... It’s a real, almost subculture within society and of course medical and nursing professions are not immune to that.”
Ken McLeod is part of a collective of pro-vaccination advocates, Stop the Australian Anti-Vaccination Network, and believe cases like Ms Hartmann Benz show that regulatory authorities are often too slow to crack down on medical professionals who sprout anti-vaxx views.
Mr McLeod first became involved with pro-vaccine advocacy after anti-vaxxers targeted friends of his who had publicly encouraged immunisation after their four-week-old baby daughter Dana McCaffery died of whooping cough.
He said over the last 11 years he had reported more than 100 registered health professionals to AHPRA for anti-vaxx activities.
“We in the science-based treatment community are very distressed that the lack of action from regulators and responding now is many years too late,” he said.
Mr McLeod pointed to one complaint he had made to the Queensland regulator about a chiropractor who had posted a video online where he claimed keeping up with “chiropractic adjustments” could help fight coronavirus and questioned why people put more faith in “medicine” as opposed to their bodies.
“Fifty-one trillion cells that orchestrate our immune system, every function. Yet we seem to have more faith and trust in ‘medicine’ than we do in this amazing body we call home. Crazy, right? Crazy,” the chiropractor claimed in the video. “Enough of this nonsense about the big bad bug and all the worry about washing your hands.”
Mr McLeod said when his complaint was passed on to AHPRA they simply asked the chiropractor to take down the video but did not take further disciplinary action.
“I put in this incredibly detailed complaint and virtually nothing was done in spite of all the warnings and overwhelming evidence. This is a classic case of the regulators just failing,” he said.
An AHPRA spokesperson told The Sunday Times while they could not comment on individual matters, under national law registered health practitioners cannot make false and misleading claims.
“Where such advertising is drawn to our attention, we ensure that the advertising is removed. Any related conduct concerns are also considered by the relevant National Board,” the spokesperson said.
She said public protection was AHPRA’s top priority and all notifications were taken seriously.
“Vaccination is a crucial part of the public health response to the COVID pandemic. When providing care, advice or sharing information online, registered health practitioners have a professional obligation to provide information that is evidence-based, in line with the best available health advice, and is consistent with public health messaging,” she said.
“The National Boards’ codes of conduct require practitioners to ensure that personal views do not adversely affect their patients’ care. Advising against vaccination unless there are evidence-based medical reasons undermines the national immunisation campaign and is not supported by the National Boards.”
On anti-vaxxer social media pages and chat groups viewed by The Sunday Times users were openly discussing how to avoid mandatory vaccines in Australia.
The Times sighted dozens of offers selling fake vaccination certificates on the encrypted app Telegram.
Some of the groups selling doctored certificates had more than 10,000 members.
“Stay away from the vaccine. I cannot lay any more emphasis on this. I am pretty sure most of you have seen already how dangerous the vaccine is. If you need the vaccine certificates, vaccine cards or vaccine passport message us and we will get you an authentic, valid and registered vaccine certificate,” one post said.
“Covid-19 passes available worldwide … do not let them add you into their number of deaths,” spruiked another.
Another Telegram user told The Times they could create a doctored certificate for $310 and provided examples of certificates they claimed to have made for others. One Australian anti-vaxx Telegram group, which has 13,000 members, instructed users to complain to the Fair Work Commission about mandatory vaccinations and to seek stress leave certificates from their GPs to delay being vaccinated.
The group also provided template emails for users to send to their employers in a bid to avoid vaccination.
Among the anti-vaxx groups, some of the most popular posts were from those claiming to be frontline workers including nurses and police who had quit their jobs to avoid mandatory vaccination.
People claiming to be FIFO workers from major companies including BHP, Fortescue and Rio Tinto, were also vocal in chats complaining that they were about to become unemployed as a result of vaccine mandates.
One anti-vaxx Telegram dedicated to FIFOs has 6100 members. In the group users discussed using sick leave to try and avoid mandatory vaccination. “What (sic) the actual process for proving to your company you’re vaxxed? Just show certificate? Do they actually check if it’s linked to Medicare?” one user asked.
“How will mining companies find out about forged vax certificates? And what are the fines?” said a different user in the group.
University of Western Australia’s Media and Communication lecturer Dr Tauel Harper has been tracking commentary on the vaccine on social media and said there was an uptick of anti-vaxxer activity online since the WA Government announced more than one million workers would need to be fully vaccinated by the end of January. Employers could face a $100,000 fine for having unvaccinated workers after the deadline.
As part of his research Dr Harper assigns “codes” to popular anti-vaxx discussion points.
He said discussion about mandatory vaccination was now one of the most common codes.
“A big code we see is that “heroes resist mandatory vaccination”, resistance to mandatory vaccination is one of the dominant codes. Now it’s the second biggest just after the government overreach in general,” Dr Harper said. Dr Harper said posts from those claiming to be frontline workers who had quit their jobs because of mandatory vaccination could be convincing because traditionally we were taught to trust people in these professions.
They were also seen as “whistle-blowers” amongst these communities.
However, he said it was important to recognise anti-vaxx nurses would represent a small fraction of the overall medical community.
Australia was also not at the point the US is where division about the vaccine had become mainstream, Dr Harper said. Therefore it was important for the Government to be careful in its rhetoric around vaccine mandates so not to push people to the fringes.
“It’s not healthy to see politicians using this stuff as a way to gain political capital, when really they should be just saying vaccination is the best public health option,” he said.
“The Government does have a right to encourage you to do something that is best for absolutely everybody. It’s definitely best for the economy, it’s best for your health, it’s best for your family’s health and community’s health. And that should be the relentless message.”