What Led a New York Midwife to Fake 12,499 Vaccine Records?

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo Getty Images

Early one morning this January, a school nurse in Suffolk County received an email with a distressing subject line: “STATEWIDE ALERT — False Immunization Records Baldwin Midwifery.” New York’s Department of Health was notifying schools across the state that a Long Island midwife named Jeanette Breen had falsified 12,499 records related to 1,452 students at 300 schools. Rather than administer shots to protect kids against hepatitis B, chicken pox, and other diseases, Breen had given nearly all of her patients homeopathic pellets.

Follow-up emails alerted the Suffolk nurse that a student at her school was among those who had seen Breen. “I called the mom and I said, ‘Do you have any other health records from any other doctors other than Breen?’” the nurse said. “Her answer was no and, once she got an inkling where this was going, she decided to pull her child out of school that day. She hasn’t been back. They decided to homeschool her.”

From a public-health standpoint, the nurse (who asked that I not use her name) wasn’t concerned. Her school had more than 500 students, and just one was unlikely to start an outbreak. Still, she was irked. “First of all, what Breen did is just wrong and illegal,” she said. “Beyond the lying and deceit, I was worried about the one or two students here who can’t be vaccinated because they have cancer and are going through chemo. I was shocked she wasn’t arrested.”

Rather than bring criminal charges, in November, the state reached a settlement with Breen. The midwife agreed to pay a $300,000 fine and admitted to fraud in a detailed stipulation. Still, questions lingered. Had Breen, who is 77, tricked parents who thought their kids were getting genuine inoculations? Or had anti-vaxxers sought her out? Was Breen motivated by money or ideology?

Recently, I went to visit Breen at her office in Baldwin, a hamlet in Long Island’s South Shore. Her midwifery is one in a quaint row of storefronts, next to a travel agency and two doors down from a pediatrician. Her assistant said she was too busy to speak with me, and later Breen sent me a text: “The NYS is watching me like a hawk and I am sure they would have a field day with anything you would report. So sorry to say — no comment 🙏❤️.”

Public records, news reports, and interviews fill in some of the story. Over decades, Breen built a dedicated following among her obstetrics and gynecological patients, though she often sparred with hospitals and the medical Establishment. Then, in the middle of 2019, her practice changed conspicuously.

That year saw the largest measles outbreak in New York State in 27 years, with more than 1,000 cases, largely in Orthodox communities. Lawmakers responded by tightening vaccination requirements, doing away with exemptions for those with religious, philosophical, and personal reasons. The shift meant that going into the 2019–20 school year, some 26,000 students across the state who’d used those exemptions to skip vaccinations would need to show proof they’d gotten their shots or intended to. Three months after the vote, in September 2019, Breen started seeing adolescents.

The Department of Health hasn’t said what the parents and guardians of Breen’s pediatric patients knew about the midwife’s history or what kind of care they expected their children to receive. But while some of her clientele along the South Shore could have conceivably chosen her thinking she would provide care similar to a standard pediatric provider, others were enrolled in schools as far away as Erie County. Those parents would need a powerful incentive to make a seven-hour drive for medical care.

“My understanding is people sought her out. They knew what they were doing,” says Kathleen Shortis, an obstetrics patient of Breen’s. Although Shortis took her kids to a pediatrician for health care, she says she has empathy for anyone who may have used Breen to skirt the law. “People don’t want to feel pressured about something they’re putting into their children’s bodies. That scares people. And it became very politicized.”

Shortis insists that Breen, like her patients, does not easily fit into a political or ideological stereotype. “I think people probably have the idea that she is one thing — and she is not flat-earthy. She’s also not a Birkenstock hippie. COVID made strange bedfellows on this issue.”

Whether they knew it or not, the parents who went to Breen enlisted a health-care provider who seemed to have a deep-seeded distrust of traditional medicine and its practitioners. At least some of her animus was personal. “My three boys were all born in hospitals,” she told Newsday in 1978, while attending a conference on alternative childbirth. “I had three different obstetricians, none of whom I’d recommend to anyone. And I would never have another hospital birth.” (I also saw some evidence suggesting that the father of Breen’s children, who is now deceased, was a hospital executive.)

Breen became a certified midwife in New York in 1984. In March 1988, she was granted privileges to practice at Winthrop-University Hospital in Nassau County. A year later, Breen clashed with a doctor there over a newborn she’d delivered in a home birth. Dr. Bernard Leonard was concerned about the results of a jaundice test and wanted a follow-up done immediately; Breen advised the parents it could wait until the next morning. Leonard filed a complaint with Breen’s sponsor at the hospital saying she had “interposed her limited knowledge and her considerable rapport with the patient” and “undercut the fragile patient-doctor relationship.” The hospital immediately revoked Breen’s privileges. Breen filed a lawsuit against the hospital and a defamation suit against Leonard, both of which were unsuccessful. (The baby turned out fine.)

Breen’s practice thrived, and according to court records, she delivered hundreds of babies in the early 1990s, including dozens of home births every year. One significant dispute came in 2002, when a new mother and father sued Breen for medical malpractice, claiming, among other things, that she’d failed “to recognize a medical/surgical emergency” and should have contacted a hospital. Breen settled with the parents for $315,000.

In 2005, Breen’s privileges at another hospital, the Nassau University Medical Center, were suspended for disregarding infection-control protocol: She’d walked out of the hospital with a placenta in Tupperware. It’s a common belief among midwives, and those who enlist midwives, that the organs shouldn’t be discarded as medical waste. In this case, a new mother told Breen she didn’t have a place to bury her own placenta, and Breen offered to inter it for her. At the time, Breen indicated she had 50 to 60 placentas buried in her garden. “I have two or three in my freezer right now, ready to go,” she told the New York Post. Again, Breen sued the hospital to have her privileges restored. She forced the hospital, and eventually the state, to consider more deeply the rules and regulations of medical-waste disposal, but her lawsuit was unsuccessful.

Breen continued to run afoul of common medical practices. In 2014, the board for midwifery suspended her from practicing in New York for two years after she “failed to document informed consent for vaginal births in patients who have had prior Cesarean sections, self-reporting of blood sugar levels, and some of her actual patient care” for three patients. The suspension was stayed while she adhered to a two-year probationary period.

Soon after that period ended, Breen wrote a flu-vaccine exemption letter for a pregnant woman who worked at NYU Winthrop Hospital, which mandated all employees receive the shot. When the hospital refused to accept Breen’s exemption letter, Breen’s patient sued under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. In a deposition for the case, Breen said she believed the Centers for Disease Control was a political organization “not necessarily representing factual information.” When asked why she thought the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists wasn’t a reputable organization, she responded, “Well, a doctor doesn’t always know best.” (Her patient lost the case.)

Over the years, Breen had taken courses in homeopathy — the pseudoscientific theory that people can ward off disease by administering very small doses of substances that trigger immune responses. (According to the National Institutes of Health, there’s “little evidence” that homeopathy is effective at treating any known condition.) After the 2019 change in vaccine regulation, Breen treated her patients with something called the Real Immunity Homeoprophylaxis Program, a series of oral pellets advertised as “a safe, effective, non-toxic approach” to disease prevention. Also known as nosodes, homeoprophylaxis has long been marketed to people experiencing vaccine hesitancy. Study after study shows nosodes are no substitute for vaccination.

The Real Immunity program was developed, marketed, and sold by Dr. Cilla Whatcott, who held a Ph.D. in homeopathy from Kingdom College of Natural Medicine. (As to whether that school is accredited, its website says, “Yes, but not nationally or regionally accredited, which means that KCNH is not listed with the U.S. Department of Education, nor does it wish to be.”) Earlier this year, Whatcott took to Instagram to warn customers that the pellets could be “deactivated” by the 5G network. A subsequent post on her Instagram account said that Whatcott died in February from cancer.

In April 2020, Breen began logging records into a database, the New York State Immunization Information System, that made it look as if her pediatric patients had been immunized. This was, of course, the same time that COVID-19 was spreading rapidly worldwide and expectations were building of a vaccine that might become required for billions. Conspiracy theories about microchips and sinister plots by pharmaceutical companies proliferated, and more people began to talk about refusing vaccines of all kinds as a political statement, rather than as a personal or public-health decision.

In January 2021, the Department of Health established a Vaccination Complaint Investigation Team tasked with looking into complaints of COVID-vaccine fraud. In 2022, the team helped police take down Julie DeVuono, a Long Island nurse practitioner who turned a $1.5 million profit by falsifying vaccine cards. DeVuono eventually pleaded guilty to forgery and money laundering. According to Joseph Giovannetti, the department’s director of investigations, the team began looking into frauds involving all sorts of vaccines, not just for COVID, and at the end of 2022, a tip came in about Breen. After a six-month inquiry, the Department of Health confronted her and eventually reached a settlement.

Giovannetti says his department has a number of open investigations, but he doesn’t think the state will be engaged in a never-ending war on vaccine fraud. “This isn’t an intractable situation. It’s not something that’s just going to be cat-and-mouse or anything like that,” he says. “We’re going to be able to nip it in the bud.”

Still, real dangers are posed by vaccine resistance. The percentage of kindergarteners vaccinated against measles, which the CDC declared “eliminated” in 2020, has dipped nationwide since 2019, from 95 to 93 percent. A recent Pew survey found that only 57 percent of Republicans believed measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines should be required for children to attend public schools — down from 79 percent before the pandemic.

When Breen’s fraud made headlines in January, it stoked furor from both people concerned about anti-vaxx vigilantes and those who heralded the midwife as a kind of civil-rights hero. By then, Breen had reportedly paid half of her $300,000 fine. Shortis created a fundraiser on GiveSendGo, a Christian crowdfunding platform popular among right-wing causes, to help pay the rest. Coffee & Covid, a conservative newsletter written by a Florida attorney, which claims to have more than 138,000 subscribers, promoted the fundraiser, and within days the effort raised more than $172,000. “Bravo for those like Jeanette who put principle above propaganda and personal safety!” wrote one donor. Another wrote, “Thank you for saving all those children from the poison of Dr Fauci and Bill Gates eugenics shots! [sic]”

Meanwhile, the school nurses tasked with keeping track of Breen’s unvaccinated patients are upset. “It’s an insult to the nursing profession,” said Sylvia Kallich, president of the Nassau County Association of School Nurses. Over the past few months, the Department of Health has been circulating a tip sheet to schools about identifying vaccine fraud. Red flags include records from health-care practitioners who are not located within a reasonable distance from the student or school and records from an office that doesn’t typically administer childhood immunizations — including homeopathic practices and midwiferies.

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