The Daily Beast
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Twitter/Go fund meBy the time Kristen Meghan Kelly, a 38-year-old Michigan mom and self-described “health freedom advocate,” hit record on her phone’s camera, the confrontation outside the Hudsonville School Board meeting was in full swing.In a 22-minute video from April 15 that has been shared widely on Facebook, Kelly explains that she’s been denied entry to the public meeting despite what she says is a “medically recognized” disability and PTSD diagnosis that prevents her from wearing a mask. When another parent questions that explanation, she switches tack and launches into a “science”-based assault on masking.“I am actually an exposure scientist,” Kelly says to the other parent, who’s off-screen.“Oh, an exposure scientist,” the parent can be heard saying, as she laughs.“Yes, I’m an industrial hygienist, and I actually travel around the country testifying in front of governors. I’ve opened up Texas and North Dakota,” Kelly says.If Kelly has her way, she told The Daily Beast, she’ll also further loosen COVID-19 restrictions in her own state of Michigan—despite a raging outbreak that is testing the state’s hospital system and threatening the lives of more young people than ever before.“We’re not going to stay silent,” Kelly said.A QAnon-Curious Mom Helped Lead Michigan Back to COVID HellAlthough parents at the school board meeting may have laughed off her credentials, Kelly has enjoyed an increasingly robust platform in anti-mask circles in recent weeks. And this activism, public health officials fear, could cause big problems—especially in Michigan, which has become the country’s worst COVID hotspot.While Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been criticized for bowing to political pressure and allowing indoor activities such as dining and sports—that experts say likely fed the current surge—her administration has been steadfastly in favor of masking requirements. Last week, the state extended its mask mandate until at least late May and expanded it to require children age 2 and over to wear masks.“Mask use continues to be critically important right now. It’s proven to be effective and it’s proven to be safe,” said Marcia Mansaray, a deputy public health officer in Ottawa County, where Kelly lives.Kelly, of course, disagrees. But unlike most conservative anti-maskers who completely dismiss the pandemic, she’s leaning on a compelling personal story, some acknowledgment of basic facts, and, most of all, what she describes as nearly two decades of experience as an industrial hygienist, a field that focuses on ways to protect employees from hazardous substances at work.“The science,” she told The Daily Beast, “is on my side.”Leading scientists in her field are not, and expressed serious concerns about Kelly’s activism and how she was portraying the profession.“Face coverings are a proper public health measure that mitigates the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. And if you’re not wearing anything across your nose and mouth, you’re only contributing to the generation of particles that are floating around in a room,” Laurence Svirchev, a certified industrial hygienist with the American Industrial Hygiene Association, the primary educational arm of the industry, told The Daily Beast.“It’s not a difficult concept to understand,” Svirchev added, echoing many months of public health guidance across the world.Larry Sloan, CEO of the AIHA, where Kelly has held an emeritus membership, told The Daily Beast that more than 99 percent of the AIHA’s 800 members “believe that face coverings are one important strategy for reducing risk.”“It is very dangerous,” Sloan said about the way Kelly links her activism to the field of industrial hygiene. “I think it is undermining the science of industrial hygiene.” (Kelly responded by calling Sloan’s statement “shocking and disturbing,” arguing “it goes against the whole field of industrial hygiene.”)Industrial hygienists enforce standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a government agency that regulates workplace safety, and Kelly frequently cites OSHA standards that talk about the limitations of masking. OSHA has updated these standards, which now recommend the use of cloth masks, something Kelly told The Daily Beast is due to the politicization of masking, saying “they’re acting like it’s one size fits all, when it’s anything but.”Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, industrial hygiene occupied a relatively obscure corner of workplace safety. But according to Sloan, the problem of containing COVID-19 has made this industry “relevant everywhere” practically overnight.Kelly has capitalized on that relative obscurity and sudden relevance—as well as COVID’s evolving science—to carve out a niche for herself as an expert for anti-maskers hungry for arguments that back up their desire to ignore mask mandates.“Because, I know. Masks don’t work. Because it’s my job. It’s my job,” she tells the other parent in the video. “That’s fine. And do you want to know who does want to hear my opinion? Attorneys, who I help with their cases.”In the last few months, Kelly has been interviewed dozens of times in conservative media and she told The Daily Beast that she’s either testified or submitted sworn affidavits about the dangers of masking in four states.Kelly is not a certified industrial hygienist, which she told The Daily Beast was “a personal choice” (credentialing is not required to register as an industrial hygienist with the AIHA). Instead, Kelly, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in occupational safety and health, describes herself as a “senior industrial hygienist,” something Sue Marchese, a managing director at the American Industrial Hygiene Association, told The Daily Beast is “not a real thing.”(Kelly appeared mildly annoyed when told this. “It really is a thing,” she said. “The senior status means you’ve got senior status over other industrial hygienists or you’ve been in the career field a certain amount of time.”)And in a March post on TikTok, where Kelly has nearly 30,000 followers, she thumbed her nose at people who’ve questioned her expertise in a video called “The ‘You’re Not Credentialed In’ Chronicles.” The montage of highlights from her resume over the soundtrack of Eminem’s “FACK” closed with a card that read “when you’re asked to testify on the efficacy of masks, let me know.”Below, she wrote, “Headed to testify in front of a state Caucus and meet with their Governor to relay facts hidden by the MSM.”But this expertise doesn’t always hold up.In Tennessee, an affidavit she submitted at the request of Tennessee Stands, a group that fights against COVID restrictions, quietly disappeared from their website, though it can still be accessed through the Internet Archive.A representative from Tennessee Stands told The Daily Beast that “the affidavit was removed from their website after inaccuracies came to our attention.” (Kelly told The Daily Beast that the affidavit had been removed at her request, after people had found her phone number on it and harassed her with texts and calls.)Reviewing this document, The Daily Beast found that Kelly included an exhibit that said a 2020 New England Journal of Medicine study was called “Airborne coronavirus particle (<0.125 micron) will pass directly through N95 mask.” The actual title of the study was “A novel coronavirus from patients with Pneumonia in China, 2019.” The study does not even reference N95 respirators or any form of face covering.Elsewhere in the affidavit, Kelly cites studies she says bolster the argument that masking doesn’t work. However, many of those studies were either inconclusive or outdated or suggested the opposite. Kelly told The Daily Beast the affidavit was similar to those she submitted in North Dakota, New Hampshire and Texas, though The Daily Beast was not able to review them.Asked about the Tennessee affidavit’s discrepancies, Kelly brushed them off.“I would have to go look at it, because it was a while ago, and I can’t remember,” Kelly said. “But any clarification you need, there are so many studies, there are so many studies.”Kelly later sent The Daily Beast links to half a dozen other studies that she said support not masking.Any concerns that Kelly may be mistaken about the science do not appear to have made their way to North Dakota, where she testified this month in support of a bill that would ban mask mandates statewide. The bill’s sponsor told The Daily Beast that Kelly’s participation was “crucial” to the bill’s eventual passage. Although Republican Gov. Doug Burgum vetoed the bill last week, the legislature voted to override his veto.“They were a high class of expertise,” North Dakota State Representative Jeff Hoverson, a Republican, said about Kelly and Tammy Clark, a fellow Michigander and workplace safety adviser who testified in North Dakota with her. “They really helped spark enthusiasm. She brought some real juice and the fuel and energy that we needed to get this bill passed.”In many ways, Kelly is well-positioned to be a darling of the late pandemic anti-mask brigade, though she finds the term “anti-mask” offensive and told The Daily Beast she prefers “health freedom.” In addition to the credibility she gets from her work history and Air Force veteran status, she’s a charismatic speaker who casually ties topics like disability rights and health freedom into a single argument. In her videos and interviews, she often stays calm, even in a heated confrontation, but can quickly pivot to tears when the context calls for it, as she did in her Facebook livestream outside the Hudsonville School Board meeting.Kelly’s activities place her squarely on the right side of politics, though she told The Daily Beast that she doesn’t identify as Republican but “more of a Libertarian.” While she has posted in support of gender expression and Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd, other Facebook posts and Tweets check the boxes of far-right conservatism, from conspiracies about Joe Biden’s alleged dementia and the 2020 presidential election to wild (and bogus, thoroughly debunked) anti-vaxxer theories.Kelly told The Daily Beast she does not plan to be vaccinated herself but downplayed any issues she might have with the coronavirus vaccines, saying she thought the decision was a “personal choice.”Her conversations online strike a much harsher tone.The Anti-Vaxxer Hunt for Dead People Is Getting Even Weirder“You will never be given informed consent for this shot,” Kelly wrote on Facebook on March 22 above a local NBC story on vaccine eligibility. “It’s not, by definition, a vaccine. I don’t want my DNA altered! I also will not inject myself with carcinogens and neurotoxins. My husband has done more research on these shots that anyone else I know. He cannot fathom why anyone would consent to these bio weapons. 99% survival rate!”The international science community and most of humanity has wholly rejected these conspiracy theories about vaccines, from the false idea that they alter your DNA to rumors that they contain harmful unknown chemicals or represent a secret government weapon. Coronavirus deaths among demographic groups like the elderly who have been vaccinated have plummeted, showing their efficacy and safety.Asked about these posts, Kelly tells The Daily Beast “I am not a doctor and I always make that clear.”While her public work is focused on masks, critics say Kelly’s audience is exactly the last group public health experts would want to hear misinformation about vaccines. As Mansaray told The Daily Beast, although masking is important in “every population,” it is particularly important among people who don’t plan to be vaccinated.“You could potentially say it’s more important,” Mansaray said. “When you’re talking about these measures to reduce the spread of COVID, it’s for ourselves and our families, but it’s also for our greater community, especially those people who cannot get vaccinated. So if you’re not going to be vaccinated, put on a mask for those people.”But Kelly argues that masking actually harms people with disabilities by forcing people like her out of stores, offices and schools, echoing a far-right fixation since earlier in the pandemic on claiming to be unable to mask up. Kelly told The Daily Beast that she has had a medical exemption from masking since 2013, because of a pre-existing diagnosis of PTSD as the result of a past sexual assault, and that covering her face causes anxiety and a range of circulatory issues, from heart palpitations to increased blood pressure.“Listen, I medically can’t wear a mask, but if I could I would wear one. We have the right to make our own medical decisions about our body, especially if we are dealing with something that’s wiping out millions and millions of people,” Kelly told The Daily Beast, referencing COVID’s colossal worldwide death toll, which unlike many anti-maskers, she does not deny.In addition to government mask mandates, she’s directed her ire at companies that haven’t acknowledged her medical exemption, such as Planet Fitness, which she said has told her that she must wear a mask in order to use their facilities. Also in her crosshairs: Delta Airlines and the team of doctors the airline contracts with; she said the carrier kicked her off of her flight to North Dakota in late March.Much like the Hudsonville School Board confrontation, Kelly has managed to flip the corporate mask regulations of Delta and Planet Fitness into a disability-rights argument and a platform for her activism.Immediately after the Delta incident, Kelly posted about it on Facebook. Within hours, she said, the Michigan chapter of Pilots for Christ, a charitable organization that provides flights for patients needing critical care that cannot afford air transportation, volunteered pilots to fly Kelly and a colleague to North Dakota.In the days after, Kelly announced that she would be suing Delta Airlines for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and launched a GoFundMe to pay for the “high powered attorney” she’d need to sue Delta. She gave interviews to at least half a dozen conservative podcasts and radio shows and told The Daily Beast she has already retained counsel. Delta did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and Kelly declined to comment on whether the lawsuit had already been filed.But for the most part, Kelly’s disability rights argument plays second fiddle to her “scientific” arguments against masking.In her affidavit for Tennessee Stands, Kelly argues that face coverings outside of N95 respirators don’t really work and can even spread COVID by becoming contaminated while people are using them. She also says the same is true of N95 respirators if they’re not properly fit-tested and that masks “are inherently unsafe” because they impede breathing and could potentially contain hazardous chemicals.Larry Sloan of the AIHA dismissed each of these arguments, which contain fragments of truth but are wildly misleading.“I think she is taking specific studies and extracting a narrative that is perhaps aligned with her belief set. And I think that you could take any research study and twist the data to meld or support what your personal belief set is,” Sloan said.“And I don’t mean to disparage her belief set—we’re all entitled to our opinions—but her testifying against the use of face covering is contrary to good public health and the science of occupational hygiene,” he added.For her part, Mansaray said Kelly’s willingness to spread unscientific rhetoric could cause serious harm in Michigan, given the state’s ongoing crisis.“I think it’s dangerous to use a position of influence and challenge established science or guidance without having an understanding of that science and a really solid base of evidence about that,” she told The Daily Beast. (Kelly wrote in a text to The Daily Beast, “This isn’t about being anti-mask, it’s about being pro-science and following the hierarchy of controls for proper risk mitigation.”)And opinions like Sloan’s and Mansaray’s may not matter to those who want to hear Kelly. When asked why he’d invited Kelly out to speak, Hoverson immediately pointed to her experience working for OSHA. When told she had not been directly employed by the federal workplace safety agency, the lawmaker sounded unfazed.“They really got the crowd excited,” Hoverson told The Daily Beast of Kelly and her colleague, Clark. “These moms were just tearing it up for liberty. They were on the move.”Read more at The Daily Beast.Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.