Dr. Catherine Moring, president of the Mississippi Public Health Association, resigned her leadership role in the organization late last week after questioning the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine in a Bloomberg article, instead crediting the anti-parasitic drug Ivermectin for protecting her during her own infection.
In Moring’s interview with Bloomberg, the dietitian and executive director of the James C. Kennedy Wellness Center at Tallahatchie General Hospital in the Delta vacillates between skepticism of the vaccine and outright misunderstanding of how it works.
“I knew (the COVID-19 vaccine) didn’t stop transmission—it was never designed to do so—so the argument of ‘help your neighbor, be a good citizen’ just made no sense to me from the very beginning,” Moring told Bloomberg in September.
Moring was wrong—mountains of trial data and real-world observation have exhaustively confirmed the efficacy of the vaccine at blocking transmission of the virus, in addition to preventing hospitalizations and deaths. That evidence includes data from the Mississippi State Department of Health itself, which lists MPHA alongside the Centers for Disease Control as a public-health resource.
Shortly after the article’s publication, Dr. Kaye Bender, MPHA’s executive director, told the Mississippi Free Press in an interview that Moring’s statements to Bloomberg were contradictory to the core principles of the organization. “MPHA provides science-based, evidence-based advice to policymakers, organizations, institutions and individuals … We’re very disappointed in the interview, and very disappointed in learning about the interview after it occurred,” Bender said.
MPHA, a nonprofit professional organization representing public-health officials across Mississippi, released a statement “reaffirming” its position against using Ivermectin to treat COVID-19.
“Ivermectin is not an anti-viral (drug). … The FDA has NOT approved it for use in treating or preventing COVID-19 in humans. MPHA has asked its members to educate people on the inappropriate use of ivermectin to treat COVID19. Taking large doses of this drug is dangerous and can cause serious harm. Ivermectin preparations for animals are very different from those approved for humans,” MPHA’s statement reads in part.
In the same interview, Bender told the Mississippi Free Press that the MPHA board would meet to address Moring’s statements to Bloomberg. On Oct. 8, Moring agreed to resign her position as president of the MPHA, which the organization announced this week, alongside news of Dr. Lei Zhang as new president of the organization. Zhang is associate dean for research and scholarship at the School of Nursing at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
‘Pregnant During The Pandemic’
The Mississippi Free Press spoke with Dr. Catherine Moring prior to her resignation from her leadership role at MPHA. In a sprawling interview, Moring reflected on the fallout from her decision to speak with Bloomberg, her role as a public-health official, and her evolving understanding of both the vaccine and other COVID-19 alternative treatments, like Ivermectin.
For large portions of the interview, Moring was distraught, audibly anxious: afraid for both her professional future and the prospect of a public legacy as an anti-science zealot, something Moring insists could not be further from the truth. “I’ve tried to promote this vaccine for our clients and in our community. I’m not an anti-vax person,” she said.
The perspective Moring shared over the course of nearly an hour and half is, indeed, not that of a wailing anti-vaxxer. Chastened by the eruption following her unsanctioned Bloomberg interview, bits and pieces of Moring’s misunderstanding of the vaccine and the virus still emerge.
It went like this: Like many in Mississippi, Moring has had the distinctly painful experience of pregnancy with COVID-19 swirling around her.
“I was pregnant during the pandemic,” Moring says. “It was a terrible experience, terrible. I literally came to work, came to the office, and went home. We didn’t do anything. And I was terrified of getting COVID.”
Moring did not take the vaccine when it was available to health-care professionals like herself in early 2021. Nor did she take it when it became available to the general public. Her hesitation, she says, stemmed from a lack of pregnant or nursing mothers in the vaccine studies.
Moring struggled with nursing in the months after her daughter’s birth and worried the vaccination might limit her milk supply, a rare and temporary side effect found in some women post-vaccination.
In August, Moring’s hesitancy to vaccinate caught up with her. She came down with COVID-19, and experienced firsthand the viral disease that has killed more than 700,000 Americans, and harmed many more.
“I felt horrible,” she said. “I had a headache all day, a fever that hit 102 by that night.” Moring was scared that her condition would worsen, that she would wind up in the hospital like so many before her. So she scheduled a telehealth visit with the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, a highly controversial assortment of researchers and physicians known for pushing alternative COVID-19 treatments.
A doctor prescribed her Ivermectin—the kind for humans—and Moring rushed to take it. Not long afterward, her fever broke, the pain receded to a dull, persistent backache, and the virus eventually abated. Moring survived and is fortunate to suffer from no apparent long-term effects.
This was more or less the story she told a reporter from Bloomberg, she says, when a friend recommended her as an example of someone who had taken Ivermectin. Moring says she insisted she was speaking only from her own personal experience and not as president of the MPHA, but she acknowledges that the reporter countered that the outlet had to reference her position.
Then Moring saw the article. What she had expected would be a broad survey of the many Americans who had taken Ivermectin was instead about how the elected leader of a public-health organization in the state with the most COVID-19 deaths per capita prefers the counsel of podcaster Joe Rogan to her own state health officer.
Moring now seems to grasp the error of a leader of a public health organization thinking she could speak to a national media publication about vaccines for a deadly virus in the middle of a pandemic with more than 700,000 fatalities in her own country and not have it represent her outlet. “I really… you know, in hindsight … it was not a good move. Particularly as president of MPHA,” she says.
A Survey of Hesitancy
The story could end there. A dietitian, mostly focused on healthy living and eating for a variety of patients suffering from heart disease and diabetes in rural Mississippi, stepped outside the boundaries of her expertise and compromised her own position as a public-health leader through a particularly painful act of media illiteracy.
A deeper read is still worthwhile. Contained in Moring’s confident, casual chat with Bloomberg, and her longer, much more cautious conversation with the Mississippi Free Press, is a startlingly comprehensive survey of vaccine hesitancy writ large.
Often, the conversation about vaccine hesitancy attempts to catalog the millions of remaining vaccine holdouts into neat categories, a practice this reporter is guilty of as well. It is possible that Moring’s profile is more common than a clinical diagnosis of the “vaccine hesitant,” a smattering of anxieties and misunderstandings rather than any solitary reason.
Asked about her statement that vaccination doesn’t “stop transmission,” Moring quietly admitted that what she said was only true in the sense that the vaccine cannot stop 100% of transmission. “What I learned about transmission is that—like a lot of vaccines—it’s designed to reduce symptom severity.”
Moring acknowledged that all evidence does show a reduction in transmission and then, haltingly, apologized. “Can you just put how sorry I am about all this?” she asked.
Elsewhere, Moring’s information is more outdated than it is plainly false. Pregnant participants were not included in the original COVID-19 vaccine trials, which is why it took months longer for the Food and Drug Administration to approve pregnant Mississippians for the shot. As late as the end of March, MSDH itself still had a wildly outdated warning about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine for pregnant or nursing women.
That tardiness likely helped Moring’s understanding of the safety of the vaccine for pregnant and nursing mothers remain moored in the near past. But that outdated information risked Moring’s life when she had her brush with the virus. The vaccine is indeed safe for pregnant women, but COVID-19 is not.
In Mississippi alone, fetal deaths have doubled in unvaccinated pregnant women with COVID-19. Young, otherwise healthy pregnant women have died tragic, preventable deaths because of the virus. “We’re talking c-sections in the ICU so you can get the baby out of them before the mom dies,” State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs lamented in early September.
Moring expressed horror at these stories, insisting that it was news to her. “I had not seen that, wasn’t aware of it,” she said in the interview. “I know that my voice is important, and I want to make sure that it’s said that I’m a proponent of the vaccine. I think they work. They keep people out of the hospital, they reduce death. And that’s ultimately the most important thing.”
Moring now enjoys the inconsistent but often powerful protection of natural exposure to COVID-19. She is already eligible for the vaccine after recovering from her positive case, though it seems likely she will wait until she is no longer breastfeeding to get the shot. This reporter asked Moring directly: If a pregnant woman, unsure of the relative risks, asked her today what she should do, what would Moring say?
She answered quickly. “My professional advice at this point would be to get the vaccine. There’s a lot more data supporting the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, preventing hospitalization and death,” she said. “My sister-in-law is pregnant right now. She got the vaccine before, and she’s doing great.”
‘An Error In Judgment’
What, then, to make of Moring’s endorsement of Ivermectin? It is clear that she still credits it with saving her at a terrifying, precarious moment, at the climax of over a year of pandemic life. “I know that it really helped me. I was feeling horrible at first, started it, and never felt bad again,” Moring said.
This reporter challenged the medical professional about the difference between correlation and causation. “You’re right, you’re right,” she said. “It appears that it did.”
It would be relatively easy to falsely paint Moring’s choice to pursue Ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment as some bizarre folkway, an ignorant decision to guzzle horse dewormer over taking a perfectly safe vaccine or incredibly effective monoclonal antibodies.
But it wasn’t a livestock goods dealer who convinced Moring to trust Ivermectin; it was doctors like Pierre Kory and Paul Marik, doctors like the one who met with Moring and prescribed her the drug in the darkest days of her infection.
Ivermectin is undoubtedly the drug of choice for conspiracists and Facebook reactionaries. But it is also the subject of a staggering degree of serious academic fraud. One of the crowning studies suggesting that Ivermectin might have use in treating COVID-19 was withdrawn after fact-checkers “found … dozens of patient records that seemed to be duplicates, inconsistencies between the raw data and the information in the paper, patients whose records indicate they died before the study’s start date, and numbers that seemed to be too consistent to have occurred by chance,” Sara Reardon wrote for Nature.
At this point, much like Hydroxychloroquine before it, experts are clear that the fantasy of Ivermectin as a meaningful intervention for COVID-19 is vanishing.
Other medical professionals misled Moring, and extensive fraud made the drug appear even more palatable as an intervention. But Moring still acknowledges that her decision to perpetuate those fringe notions in a public forum, even one where she assumed she was speaking informally, was a failing.
“I made an error in judgment and went against the public-health association’s communication policies,” she said. But she insisted she has never recommended Ivermectin to her patients at the Wellness Center, nor pushed people away from the vaccine.
Bender, who claimed that Moring’s views in the interview utterly blindsided her, said she never encountered pushback or skepticism from the then-president over the course of the pandemic, and worked with Moring during a year when the organization put out language that supported the vaccine and questioned Ivermectin.
“As a matter of fact,” Bender admitted in a follow-up interview after Moring stepped down, “I didn’t even know she was unvaccinated. … She never discussed anything that was a problem in that regard.”
‘As Divisive As It’s Ever Felt’
What is left of Moring’s catastrophic Bloomberg interview? The stinger is an exquisitely cringeworthy moment, in which Moring conjures up the censorious hand of government-pharma collusion to explain warnings against Ivermectin—like the ones she herself released at MPHA.
“We already have (an antiviral drug),” Moring told Bloomberg. “It’s just that there’s no money in it. Ivermectin is about as cheap as it comes.”
Moring admitted that this off-the-cuff remark was essentially a repetition of invective from Dr. Pierre Kory and another perennial vaccine skeptic, Dr. Peter McCullough, who has himself lost his job at Baylor University Medical Center for his bizarre and persistent claims about the vaccine.
“That’s where that came from,” Moring said. “And I should not have said that myself.”
Moring is conflicted—conflicted about the vaccine, about the complexity of the data in front of her, the choices she must make as a media consumer, a mother, a public-health official and an individual—not necessarily in that order.
When she talks on the subject of the vaccine, or Ivermectin, it is clear that she sometimes reads and listens to an overly broad variety of sources without the rational, consensus-oriented focus expected of a board member of MPHA. She is halting, defensive, apologetic, often in the same sentence.
When Moring speaks about her daughter, about the intimate moments of new motherhood, about the anxieties of breastfeeding and the raw uncertainty of what she might transmit to her newborn, her hesitancy snaps into focus, neither absurd nor inexcusable.
Moring’s time as a statewide public-health leader is over. As a person, she seems a bit afraid, uncertain, unsteady and ready for the entire storm to blow over. Two years into an endless pandemic, this is not an uncommon posture.
With half of Mississippi partially or fully vaccinated, the half that remains is likely not some unreachable mass, neatly separated into distinct categories along simple themes. Likely, many of them resemble Dr. Moring.
“I’m not an anti-vaxxer,” Moring concludes about the COVID-19 vaccine. “I promote it. I believe in it. I believe it reduces hospitalization and death, and reduces transmission.” Even here, a caveat. “I think there’s a question of how much, but regardless, it was designed to reduce disease severity, which it is absolutely doing, and that’s why it’s so important for us to get people vaccinated.”
Finally, one last reflection. “We need to do all we can to band together as a nation and as a people, to try and unite. Because it’s sure feels as divisive as it’s ever felt,” Moring said.
Correction: This article originally stated that individuals must wait three months after testing positive to be vaccinated for COVID-19. In fact, MSDH states that individuals who did not receive monoclonal antibody treatment may be vaccinated as soon as they are “recovered and are no longer contagious and on isolation.” We regret the error.