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COVID-19 shot skeptics to host event at Tampa Convention Center

Several controversial speakers will be featured at an event this week hosted by Liberty and Health Alliance, a religious nonprofit.
The Tampa Convention Center as seen in 2010. A religious nonprofit called Liberty and Health Alliance is hosting an event at the convention center this week featuring several controversial speakers.
The Tampa Convention Center as seen in 2010. A religious nonprofit called Liberty and Health Alliance is hosting an event at the convention center this week featuring several controversial speakers. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Sep. 14|Updated Sep. 14

TAMPA — Free medical, dental and vision care will be offered to an estimated 3,000 people at the Tampa Convention Center this week, a religious nonprofit announced.

Volunteers will offer almost $20 million in no-cost health services, according to the nonprofit Liberty and Health Alliance.

After that, several controversial speakers will be featured, including lawyer Mathew Staver, a founder of the Liberty Counsel, an anti-LGBTQ hate group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Peter McCullough, a Texas cardiologist who is well known for spreading COVID-19 misinformation, will also speak at the event, which is called “Upside Down to Right Side Up.”

Here’s what we know about the nonprofit and its event.

Related: What to know about COVID vaccine boosters that target omicron

What is Liberty and Health Alliance?

The Arizona-based nonprofit was granted tax-exempt status in early April, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

The group opposes COVID-19 vaccine mandates and questions the shots’ safety. The vaccines are safe and offer strong protection against hospitalization and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lela Lewis, a doctor in the Phoenix area, is the group’s president, according to a news release.

The nonprofit describes itself as a ministry founded by members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a global Christian denomination.

Liberty and Health Alliance offers tips on how to get vaccine exemptions at work or school and urged Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders to oppose vaccine mandates during the pandemic.

Related: DeSantis signs vaccine mandate bills into law as Florida challenges new rule

What will happen at the event?

Volunteers will offer free health services Thursday and Friday at the convention center on a first-come, first-served basis, including medical evaluations, “varied treatments based on specialty,” dental procedures and “free formulary prescriptions,” according to the group’s website and a news release.

“Liberty and Health Alliance has purchased and secured top-notch medical, dental and vision equipment, medications and supplies for a superb event,” spokesperson Anthony DeWitt wrote in an email Wednesday.

The event will also feature presentations on “health and nutrition, freedom of conscience and the erosion of personal liberties.” Most of the presentations will occur Saturday.

The group says it has over 500 volunteers, though it’s unclear how many are health care workers licensed to practice in Florida.

“Following Jesus’ example, we will provide physical healing for disease, while providing vision to those with sight impairment, healing for those with illness and sadness, but always directing the masses to the Great healer for the worst disease of all — sin, and our need of true spiritual healing,” Lewis said in a letter asking for volunteers.

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Related: Got questions about COVID vaccines for babies and toddlers? Here are the answers.

Who will speak at the event?

The event will feature several speakers, including:

  • Staver, of the Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit based in the Orlando area that “has focused heavily on anti-gay activism and lawsuits to uphold so-called ‘ex-gay’ therapy and to protect ‘religious liberty’ of Christians,’” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
  • McCullough, a Texas cardiologist who has promoted hydroxychloroquine and the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin for COVID-19 treatment, according to a column he wrote and ABC News. McCullough is being sued by Baylor Scott & White Health, the largest nonprofit health care system in Texas. He breached a 2021 separation agreement “dozens, if not hundreds” of times by claiming he’s still affiliated with the system, the lawsuit alleges.
  • Walt Heyer, who identified as a transgender woman in the 1980s and then de-transitioned. In 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center said Heyer has “gained notoriety hawking his story for anti-LGBT extremists.”
Related: Riverview High teacher cleared after group claims she pushed gay rights on students

What does the nonprofit say?

“Very influential people, very influential entities ... have tried to cancel this event,” Lewis told volunteers earlier this month, according to a YouTube video. “Satan’s pulled some of his shenanigans and pulled some of our partners.”

Lewis didn’t provide specifics about who had tried to cancel the event.

“We are in need of additional finances,” she said. “We’re quite a bit over budget, and that’s OK. God’s going to provide. We’re moving forward in faith.”

The nonprofit says it has raised $225,000 and wants to get at least $200,000 more in donations.

Related: COVID was deadly to working-class Americans in 2020, says USF researcher

What does the city of Tampa say?

The city owns and operates the convention center, which is on the waterfront.

“The convention center is rented to a wide array of groups, regardless of whether the mayor agrees with their views or not,” Mayor Jane Castor’s spokesperson, Adam Smith, wrote in an email.

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