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Dr. Oz, Fox’s all-purpose coronavirus pundit, apologizes for pushing the ‘trade-off’ of reopening schools

Fox News interviewed TV personalities Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil and Dr. Drew in the early months of the pandemic, though none of them are infectious disease experts. (Video: The Washington Post)
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When Fox News host Sean Hannity wondered what would it take to reopen the country amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, he turned to his trusted source on all things medicine and science: Mehmet Oz, the surgeon and TV personality better known as Dr. Oz.

“First, we need our mojo back,” Oz said Tuesday night, in a sound bite that has since gone viral. He suggested that some things could be opened “without getting into a lot of trouble,” such as schools. “I tell you, schools are a very appetizing opportunity,” he said, adding that resuming classes, according to his reading of a new medical journal analysis, “may only cost us 2 to 3 percent in terms of total mortality.”

That death rate, he concluded, “might be a trade-off some folks would consider.”

His suggestion sparked an enormous response on social media — prompting a somewhat apologetic statement late Thursday: “I misspoke,” he said in a video released on Twitter, acknowledging that his words had “confused and upset people.” The goal, he said, was to discuss “how do we get our children safely back to school” as he is “being asked constantly how we’ll be able to get people back to their normal lives.”

But it was only one of dozens of pronouncements that Oz has offered as a guest on Fox since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, during which the network has turned to him on a range of topics far outside his background as cardiothoracic surgeon.

When should schools reopen? What drugs are effective against covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus? When will there be enough ventilators? Oz isn’t a virologist or a pharmacologist or a logistics expert, but he doesn’t hesitate in answering with the confidence of an expert, name-dropping corporations, elected officials and medical journals along the way.

Oz, 59, who also hosts his own syndicated daytime show, has long been a popular and controversial figure, facing criticism for comments he’s made about everything from vaccines to the Ebola virus. He even endured a congressional grilling in 2014 for pushing questionable weight-loss programs and calls for his firing from Columbia University’s medical school in 2015 by physicians who said Oz has “repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine.”

Claims about hydroxychloroquine to treat covid-19 have gained traction despite a lack of scientific evidence. How did this happen? (Video: The Washington Post)

Now, in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, he’s become a fixture on Fox News, where he has offered some guidance within the scientific mainstream — such as advocating for uniform testing and warning people with underlying medical conditions to remain careful after social distancing ends — but has also hyped the potential of hydroxychloroquine, a drug whose benefits for covid-19 remain unproven and little tested.

For Fox News hosts, the hydroxychloroquine controversy is fuel for the culture war

In addition to being a charismatic speaker and a familiar face to TV audiences, Oz’s appeal to Fox may lie in the fact that many of his positions tend to be in sync with those of the networks’ popular prime-time hosts — and indeed with President Trump’s.

Oz, for example, has echoed Hannity’s — and Trump’s — promotion of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug. He praised South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R), whose state is doing widespread testing of hydroxychloroquine but is also home to a significant coronavirus cluster after she held off on issuing a stay-at-home order. He’s repeatedly mentioned research on the drug by doctors in China, directly quoting them on air.

During an appearance on “Fox and Friends” earlier this month, Anthony S. Fauci, Trump’s infectious disease expert, urged caution in response to Oz’s claims.

“Although there is some suggestion [of effectiveness] with the study that was just mentioned by Dr. Oz . . . I think we’ve got to be careful that we don’t make that majestic leap to assume that this is a knockout drug,” Fauci said. “We still need to do the kinds of studies that definitively prove whether any intervention, not just this one . . . is truly safe and effective.”

Oz pushed back during a later “Fox and Friends” spot, suggesting that Fauci should “respect” the studies conducted to date, even if they were small.

For weeks, Oz has been trying to find reasons for Fox viewers to be hopeful. In late March, he went on air and listed a litany of potential covid-19 treatments, including several drugs, and argued, “If you’re a patient and you get covid-19, it is worth asking your doctor about any of the products on this list.” On Thursday, Oz told “Fox and Friends” that he was “really bothered” by reports, later denied, that Boston University was canceling its fall semester.

Efforts to reach Oz through his TV production company and through Columbia University, where he is affiliated, were unsuccessful on Thursday. A Fox News spokesperson said Oz was a guest, not a paid contributor to the network, and that Fox had recently added several doctors to serve as contributors. She declined further comment.

Launched to television fame as a regular guest on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, Oz has hosted his own program since 2009. In 2016, candidate Donald Trump appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show” to discuss his personal health, in lieu of releasing his medical records. He later appointed Oz to serve on the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition.

Oz’s pronouncements on a wide range of health and medical issues have stirred up trouble before, most memorably in 2015 when a group of 10 physicians urged Columbia University to dissociate itself from him, accusing him of “promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain” (Oz is vice chair of the medical school’s department of surgery).

The physicians, led by Henry Miller, a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, said Oz had “either outrageous conflicts of interest or flawed judgments about what constitutes appropriate medical treatments, or both.” They cited a “Dr. Oz Show” episode in 2011 in which investigators claimed apple juice contained unsafe levels of arsenic. The Food and Drug Administration disputed the findings and said the report was misleading. (Asked about Oz’s latest coronavirus comments, Miller replied, “Sorry, but I have better things to do — like cleaning my fingernails — than watching Oz or discussing him.”)

Americans want to see what’s happening in hospitals now. But it’s hard for journalists to get inside.

Oz was also called out during a hearing on Capitol Hill in 2014 for touting “miracle” weight-loss products on his show that, in fact, offer no special benefit. Then-Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) said at the hearing his claims were deceptive: “When you call a product a miracle, and it’s something you can buy and it’s something that gives people false hope, I just don’t understand why you need to go there,” she said.

He replied that the products gave people hope to keep trying to lose weight.

Oz responded to the criticism from Miller in a written statement. “I bring the public information that will help them on their path to be their best selves,” he wrote. “We provide multiple points of view, including mine which is offered without conflict of interest. That doesn’t sit well with certain agendas which distort the facts.”

Columbia rejected the effort to oust him, saying his commentaries were protected by academic freedom.

Oz’s enormous popularity and celebrity may bulletproof him from the kind of professional discipline that might deter a lesser-known doctor.

Writing in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics in 2017, three Mayo Clinic scholars questioned whether Oz has essentially become too big to be brought to heel.

“Should a physician be allowed to say anything — however inaccurate and potentially harmful — so long as that individual commands market share?” wrote Jon C. Tilburt, Megan Allyse and Frederic W. Hafferty. “Dr. Oz certainly appears to be someone peddling unproven and ineffective remedies for personal gain. It would seem like his is a paradigmatic test case for professional self-regulation in medicine. Yet, he remains immensely popular, prompting us to wonder, if we can’t effectively sanction Dr. Oz, whom can we sanction?”