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Non-epidemiologists Phil McGraw, Mehmet Oz stoke controversy with coronavirus remarks

Meredith Blake
Los Angeles Times

Two of television’s most well-known daytime hosts are under fire for their comments questioning stay-at-home restrictions put in place to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Dr. Mehmet Oz says he misspoke during a Fox News Channel appearance this week where he said reopening schools was a very appetizing opportunity despite the coronavirus epidemic.

In a Thursday appearance on the Fox News show “The Ingraham Angle,” Phil McGraw suggested it was dangerous to shut down the economy in order to stop the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The fact of the matter is 40,000 people die a year from automobile accidents. 480,000 from cigarettes. 360,000 a year die from swimming pools, but we don’t shut the country down for that. But yet we’re doing it for this?” said the host of “Dr. Phil,” who is not a licensed doctor. (He also incorrectly stated how many people die in swimming accidents each year; that number is closer to 3,600 a year, not 360,000, according to the CDC.)

A day earlier, Dr. Mehmet Oz expressed similar sentiments during Fox News’ prime-time programming. “We need our mojo back,” he said on “Hannity.” “Let’s start with things really critical to the nation. Schools are a very appetizing opportunity. I just saw a nice piece in the Lancet arguing that the opening of schools may only cost us 2-3% in terms of total mortality. Any life is a life lost, but to get every child back into school where they’re safely being educated, being fed, and making the most out of their lives with a theoretical risk on the backside — it might be a trade-off some folks would consider.”

Both hosts faced immediate backlash on social media. Many users noted that McGraw was not a medical doctor and that both men had risen to fame through appearances on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

The statements from two of TV’s most recognizable “doctors” – licensed or otherwise – come amid a growing call among conservatives to ease social distancing measures even as the virus continues to claim hundreds of lives across the country each day. Fox News personalities such as Laura Ingraham have been pushing to reopen the economy. Meanwhile, people in Ohio, Michigan and elsewhere have gathered in recent days to protest restrictions in their states.

Neither host is an expert on infectious disease or epidemiology. Oz is a cardiothoracic surgeon. McGraw has never been a medical doctor. He has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology but is no longer licensed to practice psychology. (In the same episode of “The Ingraham Angle” on which McGraw appeared, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, pushed back against Ingraham’s suggestion that the virus might simply “disappear” without a vaccine.)

Both Oz and McGraw have been accused of using their clout to promote misinformation while engaging in ethically questionable behavior. In 2014, Oz was grilled by a Senate subcommittee about various dubious weight-loss remedies he’d featured on his daytime talk show. That same year, researchers found that less than one-third of the advice dispensed on his show was backed up by medical science. More recently, he has made multiple appearances on Fox News eagerly promoting the use of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, even though there is growing doubt about its effectiveness.

Dr. Phil McGraw

McGraw has drawn scrutiny for promoting a diabetes drug under the guise of an awareness campaign and was criticized by mental health professionals for making statements about Britney Spears’ well-being following a visit with her in the hospital during a psychiatric stay in 2008.

Oz later attempted to clarify his remarks. “I’ve realized my comments on risks around opening schools have confused and upset people, which was never my intention. I misspoke,” he said in a video shared Thursday on Twitter. “As a heart surgeon, I’ve spent my career fighting to save lives in the operating room by minimizing risks. At the same time, I’m being asked constantly, ‘How will we be able to get people back to their normal lives?’ To do that, one of the important steps will we get our children safely back to schools. We know for many kids, school is a place of security, nutrition and learning that is missing right now.”

Sony Pictures Television, which produces “The Dr. Oz Show,” declined to comment. New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, where Oz practices, did not respond to a request for comment. CBS Television Distribution, which produces “Dr. Phil,” did not respond to requests for comment.

The back-to-back controversies have also invited renewed scrutiny of Oprah Winfrey, who helped both men make the transition into broadcasting, and has been criticized for a giving a platform to people such as actress and anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy.