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The exterior of Dr. Tara Zandvliet’s office in South Park / Photo by Megan Wood
The exterior of Dr. Tara Zandvliet’s office in South Park / Photo by Megan Wood

Patient H was 8 years old and her brother, Patient I, was five when their mother reached out to Dr. Tara Zandvliet about vaccine exemptions.

Both brother and sister ­— who are not named in new charges filed against Zandvliet by the Medical Board of California — had asthma. Their mother was prescribed an inhaler, Zandvliet told state investigators.

For those reasons, both brother and sister received a permanent medical exemption from all vaccines in 2019, according to the charges.

Zandvliet became well-known later that year as one of Southern California’s doctors of choice among those who are vaccine skeptical, when Voice of San Diego revealed she had written nearly one-third of all vaccine exemptions in San Diego Unified School District.

People who have asthma are more in need of certain vaccinations, not less, as Zandvliet herself has noted.

In an email, she told me she recommended to the family that Patients H and I actually receive some of their vaccines. Despite this recommendation, she wrote them a permanent, blanket exemption for all vaccines. That’s because state law forced her to either choose a one-year temporary exemption or a permanent exemption, she said.

“I chose permanent, since their conditions were not temporary,” Zandvliet said. “It was an administrative thing.”

She also said the children’s conditions weren’t limited to asthma: “They had way more than asthma.”

Medical Board officials filed the new charges earlier this month against Zandvliet, who is already on probation as a physician, related to four new cases of improper vaccine exemptions. She is charged with gross and repeated acts of negligence, as well as violating the “ethical code of the medical profession.”

Zandvliet is known at her medical practice as the South Park Doctor. After the 2019 story showing she had written hundreds of exemptions, Medical Board investigators looked into some of those exemptions and found she had committed gross negligence.

Zandvliet settled with the board and agreed to three years of probation. She did not admit guilt. But she was barred for writing any new vaccine exemptions for three years.

At the time, Zandvliet estimated she had written roughly 1,000 vaccine exemptions.

Dr. Bob Sears, a prominent vaccine skeptic in Orange County, is the only other doctor in California to have been disciplined for vaccine exemptions.

Medical Board investigators also charge that Zandvliet never reviewed the medical records of Patients H and I. (“Wrong. I had all their pertinent medical records in my hands,” she wrote.) If she had, they say, she would have realized that Patient H had already received some of her vaccinations — and experienced no serious side effects.

“Patient H had received multiple prior vaccines and her primary care physician did not regard her as having any medical condition that would warrant medical exemption,” the charges state.

Since the initial charges were filed in 2019, Zandvliet has also been charged with overprescribing opioids.

After her many vaccine exemptions became public knowledge, state legislators crafted a new law that put any doctors under the microscope who wrote five or more exemptions.

Zandvliet wrote many of her exemptions for reasons that fall outside the bounds of traditionally accepted medical science. In particular, she wrote exemptions for people with family histories of autoimmune disease.

It’s a “soft reason,” Dr. Mark Sawyer, an infectious disease specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital, previously told Voice of San Diego. Writing vaccine exemptions for everyone with a family history of autoimmune disease or allergies is far more risky than beneficial, Sawyer said.

The two other new cases being pursued by the Medical Board also involve family histories of autoimmune conditions or allergies.

“Perhaps you should find out why the Medical Board keeps [going] after old charts and old complaints … when I am already on probation and they are supposed to be watching me going forward, not backward,” Zandvliet told me.

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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