A registered nurse has been suspended for 12 months for comments on social media and sharing “misinformation” in a radio interview discouraging Covid-19 vaccination.
Auckland nurse Sarai Tepou​ was called before the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal on Monday, facing a professional misconduct charge. She did not attend, nor did she have legal representation present.
The tribunal heard Tepou also circulated letter templates titled “refusal for vax” during the vaccine roll-out from personal and/or business Facebook pages. The form letters were designed for school children to give to parents – one threatened police would be called if a board or principal encouraged onsite vaccination.
Lawyer for the Professional Conduct Committee, Matthew McClelland, KC​, said Tepou’s conduct carried a “significant likelihood of undermining the public trust and confidence” in the public health response to the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the nursing profession.
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McClelland told the tribunal, led by lawyer Winston McCarthy, that Tepou – amid a global health emergency – “promoted anti-vaccination statements that contradicted the best scientific evidence and undermined the Government’s vaccination roll-out”.
The tribunal heard that in June 2021, prior to the roll-out extending to “group 4” (the wider population), Tepou posted on Facebook that she “did not trust her peers”, and commented saying “try refrain from DHBs… most peers pricked!”
McClelland said these were “disrespectful, demeaning and inappropriate” comments, and did not adhere to the nurses’ code of conduct on social media use.
The tribunal also heard that in April, Tepou spoke to PMN Tokelau – a weekly radio broadcast in New Zealand and Tokelau – during which she “communicated misinformation and/or disinformation” about the vaccine.
During the interview, she called the Covid-19 vaccine “experimental”, and said vaccine mandates were “tyranny”, transcripts to the tribunal show.
Stuff has chosen not to report further comments, so to not recirculate the same misinformation.
McClelland said Tepou, also a midwife, was a “respected figure” in the Pasifika community and had the capacity to “influence marginalised and vulnerable communities” prioritised in the vaccination roll-out.
Her actions were likely to increase vaccine hesitancy or scepticism, which likely had far-reaching public health consequences, given the Tokelauan community’s vaccination rate was low compared to Cook Island, Samoan and Fijian communities, McClelland said.
A health worker involved in the Pacific Covid-19 vaccine roll-out programme told the tribunal Tepou’s comments “had the potential to create confusion” among a group “already at high-risk” of mixed-messages on social media.
A lot of work went into increasing uptake among eligible Pacific peoples, including festival days, engaging with churches and different ethnic groups, she said – Tepou’s comments “undermined” these.
Tepou had not engaged with the investigation or tribunal, McClelland said.
The tribunal decided to suspend Tepou, and impose a censure.
She will be required to successfully complete a course in professional ethics at her own expense when she returns to practice.
The tribunal also ordered Tepou to pay 40% of the total costs of the hearing.
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