YOUNGSTOWN — If you scrolled through Julie Gentile's Facebook page on Monday morning, you may have noticed several posts with banners attached.
Intended by Facebook to flag misinformation, one read: "Some unapproved COVID-19 treatments may cause serious harm" on a story about alternative medical treatments. Another was more stark: "Partly false information."
It’s a familiar story: Unreliable information cited as legitimate news in posts getting attention on social media.
But Julie Gentile isn’t just a private person dispensing misleading narratives on Facebook. As the environmental occupational health and safety director at Youngstown State University, she’s the head of the committee that determines how YSU implements pandemic safety protocols.
In the past week, public universities around Ohio have announced they will mandate masks indoors. The Ohio State University, Kent State University and Ohio University all determined masks were necessary in the face of rampant spread spurred by the highly contagious delta variant.
Instead of a discussion about a mask mandate at YSU — the university has yet to implement one — Gentile's Facebook posts have gotten attention within the YSU community.
Some examples of what some see as problematic posts on Gentile's Facebook page:
• In a now-deleted post flagged by Facebook for "partly false information," Gentile shared a Pioneer News Service article from India, "Ivermectin use can end Covid-19 pandemic: Study." As Mahoning Matters reported Monday in a story by McClatchy reporter Katie Camero, "Several federal and international health agencies, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization, have advised against using ivermectin to treat or prevent COVID-19 outside of controlled clinical trials. ... A WHO group of experts analyzed 16 randomized controlled trials including a total of 2,407 inpatients and outpatients with COVID-19 and concluded that evidence of the drug’s ability to improve disease outcomes is of 'very low certainty.'”
• In a July 8 post also about ivermectin also flagged by Facebook and also deleted, Gentile wrote: "Article in The Epoch Times is unbelievable ... literally hard to believe this is happening in the United States. ... As a parent I can't even tell you how many times Me and Anthony have told our kids, 'don't believe everything on the internet.' Especially with the huge CENSORSHIP of information."
• In a July 15 post also deleted, Gentile posted another story from The Epoch Times headlined, "5 Times More Children Committed Suicide Than Died of COVID-19 During Lockdown: UK Study." She added, "So sad, time to stop the madness." The story was also posted by the America's Frontline Doctors group, often accused of spreading coronavirus misinformation, and Breitbart. The headline for the not-yet-peer-reviewed study, however, appears to not be completely in context as the study also concludes: "We found no consistent evidence that child suicide deaths increased during the COVID-19 pandemic although there was a concerning signal they may have increased during the first UK lockdown. ... The COVID-19 pandemic comes at a time when there is growing concern over rising suicide and self-harm rates in young people in the UK. While rates are low in children compared to other demographic groups, childhood rates in the UK have been rising since around 2010, and similar trends have been seen in young adulthood suicide in other countries."
Several of her posts linked articles from The Epoch Times, which came into prominence during the Donald Trump presidency and has "long been known as a problematic publication," said Shelley Blundell, a journalism professor at YSU.
The publication doesn't pass the smell test, or, for Blundell's journalism students, the CRAAP test: currency, relevancy, authority, accuracy and purpose.
The Epoch Times fails to deliver in the last three categories, Blundell said.
It has said "COVID is retribution for folks who support the Chinese Communist Party," she said. "It has a long history of being anti-science. It is a firm QAnon supporter.
"As an example, it actively touted the use of ivermectin as a prophylactic against catching COVID," she said.
Ivermectin is used to prevent parasites in animals and, when used on humans, can interact with other medications and cause serious side effects including seizures, coma and death. Like hydrocloroquine, ivermectin has been painted by the right as a magical cure for COVID-19, thus proving the solution is accessible and the crisis is overblown.
Susan Clutter, president of YSU's faculty union and a member of the committee with Gentile, said she wasn't aware of Gentile's personal views on COVID-19 until she asked for clarification on whether faculty can mandate masks in their individual classrooms.
They can't, per current university policies.
"I received, at least, a page of information from Julie that [argued] there's no science that supports masks are helping and that kind of thing. And, I thought, 'Well, gee, that's not what I'm hearing,'" said Clutter.
In the email, Gentile wrote:
"If simply looking at our campus population risk throughout the entire pandemic the risk has been low to moderate based on scientific evidence that people under the age of 70 are at low risk of getting seriously ill from COVID. Reviewing previous public health mandates and press conferences you will time and time again hear 'we need to protect our most vulnerable.'
"Our general campus population are not vulnerable and based on current COVID numbers do not need 'protection,'" Gentile added in her note to the committee.
That's not entirely true, members of the YSU community argue.
"I had COVID earlier his year. It knocked me out for a good month, and it was three to four months until I felt back to my normal self. According to that email, I am within the non-vulnerable population," Blundell said.
Furthermore, more than 70 percent of YSU students are classified as "non-traditional" and thus could be older or live at home, potentially with older generations, Blundell said. In addition, the university community includes staff and students with disabilities and those who are immuno-compromised.
Gentile also wrote, in estimating the risk associated with COVID: “For example dying in an airplane crash is a catastrophic event but the probability of that occurring is remote therefore it would be a moderate risk. The same risk assessment concept must be applied to ALL safety and health issues in order to be consistent and base decisions on sound science instead of emotions. Is dying in a plane crash horrible, yes. Do we wish this on anyone, no. But that doesn't mean that we regulate airline industries to the point they are crippled.”
Clutter notes, while some find her email and her posts problematic, the decisions at YSU were made by a committee.
"Yes, she was the head of the committee," Clutter said. "I support faculty's concerns, but I don't believe that YSU has one person making these decisions. Maybe the better way to say it is that I would hope that YSU doesn't have one person making the decisions."
Clutter added she doesn't know who was making calls above the committee.
"That will probably be a question for Julie herself," she said.
Gentile did not respond to Mahoning Matters’ request for comment.
In response to Mahoning Matters' inquiries about the matter, university spokesperson Ron Cole said he wasn't aware of the posts and the university is reviewing the posts with Gentile.
Cole described Gentile as "a highly trained and respected occupational health and safety professional who has done an excellent job leading our COVID-19 response, including extensive testing, setting up vaccine clinics on campus, putting into place safety protocols, instituting detailed contact tracing practices and much more."
He further noted she has worked in tandem with local health officials to ensure the university is following recommendations from federal, state and local authorities.
"Her ability to thread the needle during these uncertain and ever-changing times has helped keep YSU as safe as possible during the pandemic," Cole said.
After Mahoning Matters inquired about some of the posts — some of which were flagged for disinformation by Facebook — they were removed from public view.