Realities diverge after Anchorage conservative activist dies from COVID

People stand around a light wooden coffin
Mourners including Dustin Darden and Michael Chambers gather around William Topel’s coffin on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

About a dozen friends gathered around a wooden casket on a cold Monday in October for conservative activist William Topel’s burial at the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery.  

In attendance were friends, state Sen. Roger Holland, R-Anchorage, and the city’s chief medical officer, Michael Savitt. Mourners placed their hands on Topel’s casket and wiped tears as his body was lowered into the earth. Topel died on Oct. 13 at age 68. 

Friends remembered Topel for his kindness, generosity and love of chocolate cake from Leroy’s Family Restaurant.

A white man with a baseball hat fives a thumbs up at a field
William Topel (Michael Chambers photo)

They also said they saw Topel’s death as a call to action to oppose mask mandates and COVID-19 vaccines, and to promote the use of ivermectin to treat the virus, even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns against it. Topel was a longtime attendee and testifier at Anchorage Assembly meetings and was deeply involved in a recent string of contentious meetings on a proposed mask mandate. He attended the meetings unmasked until he was hospitalized with COVID-19.

“God’s going to use this as a fulcrum to propel us into victory,” friend and fellow activist Dustin Darden told the crowd after Topel’s burial. “We’re going to take every square inch of Anchorage, everything that Bill stood for every time he was out there, it’s just been amplified 1,000 times.”

RELATED: Fight over required health precautions in Anchorage Assembly chamber ends meeting early

For other people who observed Topel in public life, there’s a different lesson to take from his death. 

“It’s just heartbreaking,” said Downtown Assembly member Chris Constant, who supported the mask mandate and knew Topel through his frequent and lengthy public testimony. “It just punches you straight to the heart of your core mission.”

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For supporters of health measures like COVID-19 vaccines and mask mandates, Topel’s story is one of a man who was misled by misinformation. Constant said he voted for the mandate in order to save lives, but he also predicted that it could cost some people their lives after seeing the packed Assembly meeting room during the weeks-long public testimony. 

“I looked to the chair [Suzanne LeFrance] and I said to her, and this is a grim thing, but you know, ‘When we see this crowd here, it’s very likely some of these people aren’t going to make it,’” he said. “Why? Because it’s predictable, simply science, virology.”

Last week, Suzanne Straub, an Eagle River nurse practitioner, also warned about the potential spread of COVID-19 at the meetings. In a letter to the Assembly, she said she had a patient who attended the meetings without a mask, had been infected with COVID and was gravely ill. The patient, according to the email, refused to wear a mask in the medical clinic. 

“That’s the sickness we have going on right now where someone who believes it’s their right and freedom not to take a vaccine or not to put a mask on believes they have the right to spread disease,” Constant said.  

It’s unclear how Topel contracted COVID-19, but many suspect it may have been at those crowded Assembly hearings. Several people, including members of Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration, were recently infected. 

Michael Chambers, a friend of Topel’s for the last 15 years, said after Topel was hospitalized, he demanded ivermectin, an antiparasitic drug not approved for COVID treatment. Doctors denied his requests, he said, which some friends blame for his death. They see the problem as the medical establishment’s refusal to treat COVID patients with drugs like ivermectin, a drug used mostly to treat conditions caused by parasitic worms. The drug generally has few side effects, but the FDA has warned of illness caused by taking high doses usually from the drug in its form designed for animals. 

“We’re not talking about drinking battery acid, we’re talking about benign medical things that he wanted, that he requested,” said Chambers. “And they denied him that … And I think it’s just disgusting.”

The FDA has not approved ivermectin for treating COVID, though larger studies are ongoing to see if it could be effective. The National Institutes of Health says that there are indications it may be helpful in treating the virus based on in-vitro lab studies, but says there isn’t enough evidence to recommend for or against using it. Physicians could be liable for adverse effects from prescribing drugs that are not approved for treating a certain condition or disease, according to the NIH.  

Health officials say they worry that interest in ivermectin could distract people from the most effective way to avoid serious effects of COVID: getting vaccinated. 

Chambers said Topel was adamantly opposed to the vaccine, but said he didn’t deny that the virus was dangerous. Chambers said Topel had several underlying conditions and knew the risk he was getting into going to the Assembly meetings.

“He didn’t want to be a martyr, he wanted to live,” said Chambers, “But he knew that he stood by his convictions, he stood by his principles so he went to the public [hearing].”

Now, his group of friends are hoping to spread his message at an upcoming medical summit. The conference features nationally renowned vaccine skeptics, promoters of unproven cures for COVID and local doctors who disagree with the medical consensus on the use of drugs like ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine and Z-Pak, an antibiotic, as COVID treatment. 

RELATED: Prominent COVID vaccine critics scheduled to gather in Anchorage

Meanwhile, a mask mandate is in effect throughout Anchorage, though compliance has been spotty and it’s unclear whether Bronson’s administration is enforcing it. 

To supporters of public health measures, the response from opponents feels like a collective fever dream that has pitted parts of the community against each other, when the clear enemy is the virus. 

“People don’t really wake up until it happens to them or someone they love,” said Constant. “And even now, you have evidence that that isn’t even enough to wake people up.”

Correction: This story previously described ivermectin as an antiviral drug. It is more accurately described as an antiparasitic drug with some antiviral properties.

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.

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