Chattanooga-area nurse at center of virus conspiracy theory subject of new podcast

Hundreds of frontline healthcare workers at local Chattanooga hospitals eagerly rolled up their sleeves when the first COVID-19 vaccines arrived on December 17, 2020 – but only one would become the center of an international conspiracy theory and is now the subject of a new series of NBC News podcasts investigating the rapid spread of misinformation online.

Tiffany Dover, a nurse manager of CHI Memorial’s COVID-19 unit, spoke at a press conference at the hospital shortly after receiving her first dose of the vaccine that day in December.

Overwhelmed with emotion, Dover recalled the difficulty of treating coronavirus patients and how grateful she was that vaccines capable of protecting people from the worst effects of the virus are now available. Then she said she felt dizzy and passed out in the arms of nearby doctors as local news stations broadcast the event live.

Moments later, she woke up and said she was fine, explaining that she often felt dizzy and passed out when she was in minor pain or undergoing medical procedures, such as getting vaccinated or have blood drawn.

But as Dover returned to work and tried to move on with his life, images of his fainting episode were taking off among anti-vaccination and conspiracy theory groups online – catching the attention of NBC News senior reporter Brandy Zadrozny, which covers disinformation, extremism and the internet.

“I kind of watched in real time as the comments turned into a real conspiracy reflection, so I was interested right away,” Zadrozny said by phone Wednesday.

(READ MORE: A year of ‘liquid gold’: The highs and lows of vaccine rollout in Hamilton County)

Zadrozny set about making a story. But when attempts to reach Dover proved unsuccessful, she came up with the idea for a podcast. The first two episodes of “Tiffany Dover is Dead*” became available to download and stream on any podcast platform on Monday, with the remaining episodes of the five-episode series slated for the next three Mondays.

Watch the video on Youtube »

“It became such a big piece of misinformation that we felt like covering it,” Zadrozny said, “and a podcast seemed like the way to do that and really get into the thick of it about how these things spread and who they harm, beyond Tiffany.”

In the spaces she frequents in her reporting, Zadrozny said Dover is “one of the most famous people on the planet,” along with Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci. But unlike Gates and Fauci — who are used to being in the spotlight and having security and public relations experts by their side — Dover is an ordinary person.

Increasingly, everyday people are finding themselves at the center of misinformation and conspiracy theories, Zadrozny said, citing recent examples of election workers and parents grieving following school shootings that have become online targets. .

“That’s why it’s so important to me. Because there’s no playbook on how to deal with it, and I think people have to be aware that it’s life that’s us. waits – where anybody can be that person,” she said.

(READ MORE: Ivermectin and outrage: The viral fallout for a Chattanooga conservative activist who lost his brother to COVID-19)

The Times Free Press was also unable to reach Dover for comment since covering the initial vaccination event and interviewing Dover with other local media after she recovered from fainting this that day.

CHI Memorial spokeswoman Karen Long – whom Zadrozny has interviewed for the podcast – has said in the past that Dover will not be available for interviews because the hospital’s previous attempt to quell the rumors with a video of Dover after the incident only made the situation worse. Dover did not speak in the video, and conspiracy theorists became convinced the person in the video was an impostor.

The podcast also features an interview with Local 3 News presenter Mary Francis Hoots, talking about the station’s decision to hijack Dover’s camera after she passed out – sparking cover-up allegations. Hoots told Zadrozny the camera was turned away just to give Dover some privacy in a difficult time.

Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Tiffany Dover, nurse manager, fills out paperwork before taking the COVID-19 vaccine on December 17, 2020.

The podcast details how Memorial was inundated with messages, calls and intruders trying to find Dover.

When asked Wednesday if Dover was still working for CHI Memorial, Long said in an email that the hospital’s policy was not to comment on employment status and that the video was taken down “because that it fueled the conspiracies”.

Zadrozny said the podcast had been difficult to report given the lack of cooperation from Dover and the hospital, but acknowledges that the nurse and the hospital have already faced many difficult questions and criticisms in the course of an effort to educate and save lives.

(READ MORE: Doctors frustrated with COVID-19 denial and misinformation)

“They were broadcasting the vaccines live for the community to understand, to see the doctors and nurses on the front lines receiving them and to feel confident with the vaccine. And a pretty terrible thing happened, not only to Tiffany, but also to this hospital,” Zadrozny said. mentioned. “I think they tried with an almost impossible situation, and I personally appreciate all the work they did.”

Although she said she has enough information to complete the project, Zadrozny plans to return to Chattanooga and do more reporting before the series ends.

“Can I tell you how it ends? I honestly think the listener and I are going to find out in real time, together,” she said, adding that her goal remains to debunk the conspiracy theory. .

She also wants to educate others about the effects of spreading false information.

“Tiffany is the cutest person you could imagine – a [critical care unit] nurse manager in the midst of a pandemic, a wonderful mom, a fun friend,” Zadrozny said. “Everyone would aspire to be that. And when you can see yourself in the middle of that, hopefully you can put yourself in that person’s shoes and be a little more careful about what you’re sharing.”

Contact Elizabeth Fite at [email protected] or 423-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

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Contributor photo by NBC News/Brandy Zadrozny

Sharon D. Cole