An anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist is peddling falsehoods about coronavirus treatment at New York City’s Elmhurst Hospital -- where she briefly worked as a traveling nurse -- that have spread on major social media platforms and were heavily promoted by conspiracy theory outlet Infowars before landing on Fox News. The nurse's claims, which include that Elmhurst was intentionally infecting patients with COVID-19, have been strongly refuted by some of her former colleagues who say she is smearing hospital workers who were working under extremely fraught circumstances.
Nurse Erin Marie Olszewski leveled her accusations about Elmhurst in a documentary series called Perspectives on the Pandemic. The documentary was published on YouTube on June 9, and as of June 15 has amassed more than 850,000 views. Reuploads of the documentary on YouTube have amassed more than 370,000 views combined, with at least one of them carrying ads, meaning the account and YouTube made money off of it.
In the documentary, Olszewski recounts how she spent a month working as a nurse at Elmhurst Hospital, which was the epicenter of New York City’s devastating coronavirus outbreak. In addition to interviews, the documentary also plays hidden camera footage that Olszewski filmed while working at the hospital. Olszewski, the founder of an anti-vaccination group in Florida, is also publishing a book about her experiences at the hospital and has a GoFundMe that seeks to raise $150,000 on the basis of her claims.
In Perspectives on the Pandemic, Olszewski promoted several conspiratorial falsehoods about what happened at Elmhurst that were later comprehensively debunked. Olszewski claimed that Elmhurst was designating people without coronavirus as having COVID-19 and then putting those patients on ventilators, where they later died; that Elmhurst resident physicians were “practicing their skills” with unnecessary procedures on ventilated patients; that the majority of patients admitted with breathing problems were actually suffering from “anxiety”; that Elmhurst was intentionally exposing immunocompromised patients to coronavirus for monetary reasons; and that medical workers at Elmhurst may have killed her only patient who was expected to survive. During the documentary, Olszewski repeatedly showed patients’ medical charts on her phone while she was being interviewed in a hotel room and also in footage shot at the hospital, with some information redacted.
Several of Olszewski’s Elmhurst colleagues contacted Dr. Zubin Damania, a hospital reform advocate “dedicated to improving healthcare for everyone” who publishes videos under the name ZDoggMD, to express disgust at and offer detailed refutations of Olszewski’s claims.
A physician fellow at Elmhurst who wishes to remain anonymous wrote to Damania, “As someone who worked in those units and know the individuals and patients she referenced I can say without question that she spoke from a place of ignorance. That she would use lazy and faulty conclusions based on superficial observations to assign motives to and assassinate the character of people who worked tirelessly is unconscionable.” They went on to explain that the patients who had a negative COVID-19 test but were still categorized as COVID-19-presumptive cases were examples of “false negatives” and that “those patients all had horrendously deranged inflammatory makers (with distributive shock on pressure) and chest x rays clearly demonstrating lung injury.” According to the physician fellow, “Each of her other arguments/points could be similarly refuted by anyone with first hand knowledge of the situation.”
A traveling nurse that worked at Elmhurst with Olszewski also refuted her claims about non-COVID-19 patients being categorized as such and emphasized that Olszewski “is NOT a critical care nurse,” but rather is an emergency department nurse who had to be taught much of the care that was being provided to COVID-19 patients. The traveling nurse also claimed that Olszewski was “terminated by Elmhurst and Krucial staffing for accusing a physician of murdering her patient.” Of Olszewski’s claims, the nurse wrote, “To express the level of betrayal, hurt , doubt, pure disgust and anger is something I can not put into words” and that their “heart hurts for the regular staff at Elmhurst-they are good nurses-they have good docs(and bad docs) but who doesn’t. But, the amount of mistrust, doubt, and fear that her video portrays to an otherwise already underprivileged city hospital-that’s not ok.”
A pulmonary attending physician at Elmhurst said they were “shocked” by Olszewski’s “misleading” claims and said that her account of a colleague causing her patient's death was “absolutely untrue.” An ICU nurse that contacted Damania wrote that “so many of us got sick and to have someone who came to make up some story and twist it is so wrong. This nurse deserves her license revoked. She puts the profession of nursing to a shame.” Another traveling nurse added, “Have we done everything right? No, it’s an unknown disease and mistakes were made. I know for a fact that everyone here has worked their hardest and done everything possible to treat the patients here.”
Media Matters contacted Elmhurst for comment and will update this piece if the hospital responds.
Damania published his own debunk of Olszewski’s claims, pointing out that she lacked the knowledge base to make the claims that she did. Damania described how he was initially sympathetic to Olszewski’s claims of being an advocate for COVID-19 patients but after viewing the documentary in its entirety, he doesn’t “believe a single word that she says.”
For example, regarding Olszewski’s “insane” claim that patients with breathing problems were often just suffering from “anxiety,” Damania noted that anxiety cannot lower blood oxygen levels “enough that would trigger physicians to put a breathing tube in you.” Damania also criticized Olszewski for showing patient charts with “minimal redaction” and called her “a criminal, unprofessional con artist who is trying to get attention” by smearing Elmhurst hospital workers. He also criticized Olszewski for promoting anti-vaccine views and noted her obvious agenda, which included using social media to cast doubt on the coronavirus pandemic before working at Elmhurst, her promotion of hydroxychloroquine, and her repetition of talking points from the viral conspiracy theory video Plandemic.
After Olszewski’s Perspectives on the Pandemic interview was published on YouTube, it quickly made the jump to far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ Infowars outlet. At Infowars streaming platform banned.video, a June 10 reupload of the documentary filed under “Special Reports” has more than 570,000 views, with commentary videos on the documentary adding over 371,000 additional views:
On June 11, Olszewski appeared on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight and used the second-most-viewed show in cable news to push her refuted claims, smear her former colleagues, and confirm that she was “sent home” by Elmhurst:
On June 12, Olszewski’s claims were promoted on Fox & Friends:
The Perspectives on the Pandemic documentary has also gotten a boost from DeAnna Lorraine Tesoriero, a former congressional candidate and supporter of the QAnon conspiracy theory who has repeatedly played a major role spreading coronavirus conspiracy theories.
Similar to Plandemic and other viral coronavirus conspiracy theory YouTube videos, the documentary has had an extensive reach on Facebook: According to the tracking tool BuzzSumo, the YouTube video of the documentary and its reuploads have earned more than 320,000 Facebook engagements combined as of June 15. Olszewski also promoted her claims in an interview with Del Bigtree, a leading figure in the anti-vaccine movement. A Facebook version of that conversation has more than 240,000 views and a YouTube upload has more than 160,000 views as of June 15 -- it was also shared by a QAnon account with a major following on Twitter.