A presentation and question-and-answer session last Thursday detailing possible problems with wearing facial masks has prompted backlash by local citizens, including members of the medical community, who fear the event may have been rooted in politics more than offering information on how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event, purportedly co-hosted by the Love Light Christian Center and Cherokee County Republican Party, was held at the Tahlequah Municipal Armory. Members of the Tahlequah City Council and other civic leaders were on hand to listen, and the public was invited.

CatalystMD CEO Dr. James C. Meehan told the audience that while protecting communities is key to fighting COVID-19, medical interventions have risks. Some in attendance later pointed out that while Meehan made good points and backed them up with medical and scientific facts, he's not a virologist or epidemiologist, and doesn't have training in a relevant discipline. They also said he has espoused anti-vaccination views in his writings and has, at various times, advanced what they dubbed medical conspiracy theories.

A Dr. James C. Meehan is listed on various websites as being an ophthalmologist and expert in preventive medicine. Another site identifies a Tulsa area physician of the same name as an anesthesiologist. His blog describes him as "a physician, accomplished leader, and entrepreneur who provides innovative science and solutions that adhere to open, honest, transparent, and uncompromisingly patient-centered principles. He transforms raw data and scientific research into easy to understand information that educates, informs, and motivates changes in behavior to lead to improved health and wellness. [He] believes in educating patients to be scientists of their own health."

Meehan blogs for MeehanMD.com and cites the National Library of Medicine to back up his claims that masks lower oxygen levels. “For people with diseases of the lungs, especially chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), face masks are intolerable to wear as they worsen breathlessness,” Meehan wrote in a June 14 blog, titled: The Pandemic of Bad Science and Public Health Misinformation on Community Wearing of Masks.

During the July 23 COVID-19 discussion and Q&A, Meehan said the use of masks for a long period of time induces arterial blood gas changes that can have a physiological effect.

"Imagine if that happens on a surgeon after 30 minutes in an operating room with these favorable conditions, what is it like when you're wearing your mask in your car in the middle of an Oklahoma summer, and you're wearing it for a longer period of time,” Meehan said.

A handful of local physicians contacted the Daily Press to express displeasure that a Tahlequah forum would be given to Meehan, rather than a local practitioner. Not all would speak for the record, with one saying he didn't want to be "dragged through the political mud," but several suggested other medical sources.

Don Stucky, physician and retired local family practitioner, argued there is no evidence masks cause CO2 retention – hypoxia or hypercarbia.

“People have run marathons wearing a mask. There are plenty of data from the [operating room] that surgeons do not get hypoxia [desaturate],” said Stucky. “People with such severe lung disease that they are subject to hypoxia are probably on supplemental oxygen [and] should be heeding the advice of their pulmonologist and staying home."

Dr. John Galdamez, Cherokee Elder Care executive medical director, internal medicine, has told the city's economic recovery task force he doesn't believe the virus is going away anytime soon. He recommends face masks, and says they should be made of two layers of fabric with a filter like ones to be used in air conditioner filters.

Dr. John Fell, doctor of osteopathy and local general practitioner, said if masks are that bad, surgeons and nurses who work in the operating room would be dead.

“I wish they would stop making it about politics or religion and just say, ‘Hey, it’s the right and good thing to protect ourselves and those around us,’” Fell said. “So in my opinion, it may help – and it won’t hurt – to be a good human and stop spreading the virus and germs.”

Meehan said during the forum that he's noticed people wearing masks aren't using them properly.

"They wear their masks on their chin, move it below their nose, they put it up on their head, they take it and throw it on their car seat or on the counter at home," he said. "They're contaminating everything they are coming in contact with. They're doing it wrong, because they haven't been told how to do it differently."

Stucky agreed that people are improperly using masks.

“Yes, people do wear their masks incorrectly, wash their hands too infrequently, fail to distance properly. These are not reasons to abandon such practices, but to improve on them,” he said. “Misinformation derives from a lack of definitive leadership."

Ward 1 City Councilor Bree Long, who attended the meeting, said daily interactions from those who render aid to Tahlequah citizens will influence her decisions.

“While Dr. Meehan is a doctor outside of this community, I’m leaning heavily upon the men and woman who live and work in our community and render aid to the citizens of our community,” Long said. “Many of [them] actually treat both symptomatic and asymptomatic COVID-19 positive patients."

Ward 4 City Councilor Trae Ratliff said nothing has concerned him more than medical professionals not being on the same page during the pandemic. As for Meehan’s professional opinion, Ratliff declined comment. Ward 3 Councilor Stephen Highers also declined comment, as he was not at the forum. Messages to Ward 2 Councilor Dower Combs were not returned by press time, but he did attend the forum and invited others to do so.

CCRP Chairman Josh Owen said he doesn't believe Meehan was paid for the event. However, he said if he was, it did not come from county party coffers.

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