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Leave Dr. Northrup alone

In defense of the federal air surgeon

Anyone who reads this column knows that I do not hold back my criticism of some of the FAA’s medical standards and rules. If the FAA medical folks are doing something absurd, I don’t hesitate to call them out. As you can imagine, it hardly makes me an honored person at their dinner table.

However, the recent online attacks on Dr. Susan Northrup, the federal air surgeon, have really made me angry. The attacks a few months ago, led by a blogger, called for Northrup to resign or be fired, citing FAA approval of COVID-19 vaccinations for pilots and other nonsense (“AOPA Stands Behind Northrup,” p. 12). These comments by the blogger on Northrup are out of control. In my opinion, the whole issue has been created by the blogger to increase his online following so he can increase his subscription revenue. I know Northrup can defend herself, but most likely is hamstrung by the FAA lawyers who often encroach needlessly into policy areas and just add to delay.

Northrup is one of the best, if not the best federal air surgeon, during my 40-plus years as an AME. Believe it or not, she is one of the only active pilots in the FAA upper echelon and flies a warbird and other GA aircraft on a regular basis. She is approachable and gives her phone number out to those who need it, like AMEs. Believe me, that is not standard procedure. She meets with the AOPA medical group on a somewhat regular basis and responds to emails I send her. In short, Northrup is a step above anyone preceding her over the past 40 years. And while we are not best friends, nor do we agree on everything, I respect her.

The attack on Northrup is based on the FAA approving COVID-19 vaccinations for pilots’ use. I have taken the CDC and health departments to task over COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. For instance, I believe masking is stupid. After three years, the CDC has started calling masking “source control devices,” which I think is a backhanded way of finally saying they do not protect anyone from catching COVID-19—and I’m not a far right conservative by the way.

Northrup is one of the best, if not the best federal air surgeon, during my 40-plus years as an AME.Vaccines are different, and most recommendations have come from the CDC and FDA. Yes, there were problems, mostly with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but even those were as close to statistically nonsignificant as one can get. There is no question that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are effective, and the hospitalizations and death rates support vaccination. My biggest complaint at this point is that the CDC does not want to pressure people into losing weight, even though 78 percent of people admitted to the hospital for infections such as COVID-19 are overweight or obese by definition. Shame on the CDC for not placing more emphasis on the obesity issue plaguing our nation, and for not recommending a healthy diet and exercise.

The blogger used half-truths and unsupported numbers in his attack on Northrup. He used individual cases, which have no relevant implications but are great to heat up the folks who only read headlines and the National Enquirer. For instance, he states that airline pilots are 40 times more likely to get blood clots than nonpilots, and without any attribution. That is like me saying airline pilots are 40 times more likely to be cheapskates than the general population. Not scientific data but just another personal observation.

My job as a physician requires me to have COVID-19 and influenza vaccinations every year, which I would do even without the requirement. It also requires me to prove I have had measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination (or the diseases). If not, I must get an MMR vaccination to practice medicine. Is it unreasonable to require airline pilots to be vaccinated? I do not think so, but I certainly understand how agonizing that choice might be for an individual to keep their job.

Over the years, I have had patients who always get the annual flu shot and others who do not. COVID-19 is going to be recommended annually as well.

What do I tell people to do? I tell them I got the vaccinations, and my family has as well.

And I do not believe a blogger’s quest for more readership and subscribers should make that decision for you.

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photo of brent blue

Dr. Brent Blue

Senior Aviation Medical Examiner
Dr. Brent Blue is an FAA senior aviation medical examiner and airline transport pilot with more than 9,000 hours of flight time. Through his company, Aeromedix.com, he introduced pulse oximetry and digital carbon monoxide detection to general aviation in 1995.

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