Let’s go back to a time, say, just a year ago. At that time, the current COVID-19 pandemic that’s killed over 270K (and counting) and resulted in over 100K Americans currently hospitalized with the disease and nearly 14 million having been infected (and that’s just in the US alone, not counting the rest of the world) was only just making itself known in China, with the first cases noted in either November or early December, depending upon the account, and wasn’t identified as a new virus until later in December 2019. Of course, one reason why I emphasize the US (other than the fact that I’m an American and live here) is that we as a nation have been hit harder than any other nation in terms of sheer numbers of deaths. As of this writing, we make up only 4% of the world’s population but account for nearly 20% of COVID-19 deaths and over 20% of COVID-19 cases. Basically, what we are witnessing is a public health catastrophe not witnessed in a century, going back to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Never have public health measures been so critical while at the same time huge swaths of the public reject them and deny how severe the pandemic is. Early on in the pandemic, antivaccine activists decisively allied themselves with COVID-19 deniers/minimizers, quacks, and conspiracy theorists to spread misinformation, disinformation, pseudoscience, and, yes, conspiracy theories, while launching an early preemptive disinformation war against any COVID-19 vaccines in the pipeline, even to the point of, in essence, fusing with the COVID-19 cranks and even QAnon conspiracy theorists. Indeed, antivaxxers are now a major presence at “anti-lockdown/antimask” demonstrations, often as headliners on the speakers’ schedule. At every turn, this unholy alliance has fought public health measures to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, including masks, social distancing, COVID-19 vaccines on the verge of becoming available, and anything resembling a “lockdown,” all using misinformation, bad science, pseudoscience, and conspiracy mongering.
Which brings me to this Tweet, forwarded by a reader, which led me to take what I’ve discussed above, add this development, and remind my readers that antivaxxers aren’t just against vaccines, but rather have always opposed public health science and interventions:
As I will discuss, being antivaccine goes so far beyond just fear mongering about vaccines, but rather encompasses a worldview that fears and resists science-based public health interventions in general. Indeed, I’d argue that we should call them “anti-public health activists” rather than “antivaccine activists” or “antivaxxers,” except that I can’t think of a short, pithy term to express that idea as well as “antivaxxer” describes antivaccine activists. Be that as it may the above Tweet links to this story in Ohio Capital Journal. Let’s dig in:
When it comes to pandemic politics, Ohio’s anti-vaccine activists are everywhere.
They’ve crowded legislative hearings on bills to strip the health department of its authority to issue public health orders to stave off infectious disease.
Members have protested various coronavirus restrictions at the Capitol steps as well as the personal homes of both Gov. Mike DeWine and former Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton.
In September, several citizens filed a federal lawsuit, rich in conspiracy theory and misinformation, seeking to overturn all COVID-19-related public health orders and award $75,000 in damages to each of eight plaintiffs. An Ohio Capital Journal investigation has revealed several ties between the lawsuit and Health Freedom Ohio, one of two prominent anti-vaccine political groups in the state.
U.S. District Judge James G. Carr is overseeing the lawsuit, which ODH attorneys referred to in court documents as attacks that are “simply partisan, personal opposition to the steps the State of Ohio has taken to protect its citizens from the onslaught of COVID-19 pandemic.”
Of course, I’ve pointed out how Ohio has a particularly nasty problem when it comes to the influence of antivaccine activists and groups in its state legislature. Indeed, it was only a little more than a year ago, in November 2019, when I expressed alarm at how many Ohio legislators were either antivaccine or, as I like to call the ones who don’t deny that vaccines are safe and effective (although they all too frequently give more credence to antivaccine claims than they should) but value “freedom” and “parental rights” over public health, the “antivaccine-sympathetic” or “antivax adjacent.” Worse, as I’ve pointed out time and time again, it is the Republican Party that seems to have become the most hospitable to antivaccine conspiracy theories and most resistant to public health measures. In Ohio a year ago, I discussed how there were 29 Republicans and 6 Democrats who were lining up on the side of antivaxxers and opposing measures to tighten school vaccine mandates.
It’s not just Ohio, either. For example, right before the 2016 election, I described how Del Bigtree and antivaxsers associated with his (and Andrew Wakefield’s) antivaccine propaganda film disguised as a documentary, VAXXED, were making the rounds at the Michigan statehouse and unfortunately finding some all-too-receptive ears there.Then there was the time before the 2018 midterm primaries that I attended an antivaccine “roundtable” discussion hosted at the local Republican Party headquarters for my Congressional district by a candidate for the GOP nomination for Representative for my district. It was also attended by my then state senator (who was running for governor because term limits didn’t let him run again) and my then state representative (who, thankfully ultimately lost reelection.) They were the same not-so-dynamic-duo who co-sponsored a bill to make measles great again in Michigan by eliminating a reform by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services that made it more difficult for parents to obtain personal belief exemptions to school vaccine mandates. And don’t even get me started how my former state senator, Patrick Colbeck, went from pandering to antivaxers to full-on antivax and 5G conspiracy crank. Add to that other examples, such the incident last year when Oregon Republicans walked out of the legislature to deny a quorum, all in order to prevent the passage of a bill eliminating nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates, and you’ll see what I mean..
This ideological alignment, in which the antivaccine movement has increasingly drifted to the right to the point where, right here, right now, in 2020 the loudest antivax voices are nearly all right wing (OK, I’ll give conservatives Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Jill Stein), goes counter to the long prevailing (and false) narrative that it is hippy-dippy crunchy lefties who make up the bulk of the antivaccine movement. This narrative has never been true, and evidence has consistently shown that the prevalence of antivaccine views is roughly equal on the left and the right, while long ago I noted how antivaccine views have found a particular home among libertarians. Don’t get me wrong. Most rank-and-file Republicans are not antivaccine; some are even admirably pro-vaccine. However, given how much the Trumpian Republican base has embraced antivaccine conspiracy theories, it’s getting harder and harder for science-based Republican candidates to ignore the antivaccine nonsense bubbling up from below.
Which brings me back to how antivaxxers are in reality anti-public health.
Does anyone remember the “old days,” say a decade ago, when some antivaxxers would claim that their unvaccinated children pose no threat to other children because health authorities can always quarantine them in the event of outbreaks, the implication being that the parents would cooperate with public health measures other than vaccine mandates? Indeed, no less an antivaccine figure than Dr. Bob Sears himself blithely dismissed the measles as not severe, saying that nearly every child with measles will be fine and will just have to quarantine for three weeks, a line he repeated during the Disneyland measles outbreak. Of course, long ago some of these antivaxxers would also advocate quarantining every outbreak of vaccine-preventable disease overseas (mostly in Third World nations), even claiming that vaccine-preventable diseases could be eliminated by mass quarantines and improvements in sanitation alone.
Even before the pandemic, though, it was clear that this was just a line of BS designed to convince the unwary that antivaxxers were not against public health measures other than mass vaccination. For example, antivaxxers not infrequently turned the “quarantine” gambit against vaccination by claiming that all children recently vaccinated with MMR should be quarantined for three weeks because they “shed” virus. (Disease from virus shed from those recently vaccinated with attenuated live virus vaccines is so vanishingly rare that pediatric cancer centers no longer recommend that children with cancer undergoing immunosuppressive cancer treatments need to stay away from recently vaccinated children.) Meanwhile, antivaccine grifters like Mike Adams portrayed the threat of quarantine of the unvaccinated as a weapon to impose “forced vaccinations,” while other antivaxxers railed against quarantine laws.
Since the pandemic hit the US, though, antivaxxers have gone all in with “resistance” to public health measures, as reported in Ohio Capital Journal:
Anti-vaccine groups have spent years attacking school and workplace immunization requirements, counting some of the more conservative statehouse Republicans as political allies. As the pandemic emerged, the groups redirected their focus toward curtailing a state law that gives ODH broad public health power.
The target is different, but the tactics of misrepresentation and distortion of health information is the same.
“They very quickly have pivoted from an anti-vaccine message to an anti-mask, anti-lockdown message of disinformation around COVID-19,” said Rep. Allison Russo, D-Columbus.
Their efforts, arguably, have proven successful. Lawmakers recently passed legislation that would defang ODH’s public health authority after several anti-vaccine leaders testified in support of the bill and other, similar legislation. Acton resigned in June and has kept a low profile since then.
Meanwhile, nearly 6,400 Ohioans have died from COVID-19 since March. More than 26,500 have been hospitalized, and 415,000 have contracted the disease.
The bill, Senate Bill 311, would eliminate the Ohio Department of Health’s (ODH) power to issue statewide and regional quarantine or isolation orders to people who haven’t been infected or exposed to disease and allow lawmakers to pass a resolution to rescind ODH orders like the statewide mask mandate. Worse, even though Governor Mike DeWine opposed the bill and threatened to veto it, the bill passed the Ohio Senate with a veto-proof majority, and its margin of passage in the Ohio House might be veto-proof because several Republicans were missing from the passage vote and could potentially give the House Republican caucus a veto-proof majority there too.
When it came time for House State and Local Government Committee Chairman Scott Wiggam to summon citizens to speak in favor of House Bill 618, which would require legislative approval before public health orders can take effect, the first three names he called were all executives of Ohio’s anti-vaccine groups: HFO and Ohio Advocates for Medical Freedom.
It was far from unusual. The anti-vaccine crowd has offered testimony in support of a string of legislative attempts to curtail ODH’s power to fight infectious disease. Wiggam did not respond to inquiries by phone or email.
In an interview, HFO President Michelle Cotterman, a registered nurse who does not wear a mask at the Statehouse, objected to the term “anti-vaccine.”
She said she and members support “medical freedom.” Her objection, she said, is not with vaccines but with entities like employers or schools using “force” to compel students or workers to take them.
“I have friends who have been fired for [declining to take a vaccine], and I also have friends who have walked away from the [nursing] profession entirely for that reason,” she said.
Yes, sadly, Ms. Cotterman is a nurse. Let me just say to her and her friends who left nursing because they refused to take the flu vaccine and the Tdap (the two most commonly required vaccines among healthcare workers), good riddance! You don’t belong in healthcare.
That aside, regular readers will recognize Ms. Cotter’s statement as the favorite gambit of the antivaccine movement, the “I’m not ‘antivaccine’; I’m pro-‘something good'” gambit”
- I’m not “antivaccine.” I’m pro-freedom.
- I’m not “antivaccine.” I’m pro-parental rights.
- I’m not “antivaccine.” I’m pro-vaccine safety.
You get the idea.
It’s very easy to call BS on Cotterman’s claim of not being antivaccine, though. All one has to do is to peruse Health Freedom Ohio’s website, which features on its front page an ad for an “HPV and COVID-19 Vaccine Safety Symposium” on January 10, whose keynote speakers include several prominent antivaccine activists, including Andrew Wakefield himself, along with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., James Lyons-Weiler, Judy Mikovits (she of the “plandemic” conspiracy theory), and two mothers who are rising stars in the antivaccine movement because they blame the severe injury or even death of their children on Gardasil. The site also lists a number of upcoming events, including a screening of Andrew Wakefield’s latest antivaccine conspiracy theory movie disguised as a documentary. Amusingly, the location of this “vaccine safety symposium” will not be revealed to registrants until 24 hours before it starts, although it will be in Columbus, OH. Oh, no, it is entirely accurate and appropriate to refer to HFO as an antivaccine organization and to Ms. Cotterman as an antivaccine activist.
Unsurprisingly, HFO is spreading COVID-19 disinformation as well (plus other ideology-driven pseudoscience and pseudomedicine):
Nadera Lopez-Garrity, vice president of HFO, spoke as well. She incorrectly claimed COVID-19 has been in Ohio since Nov. 12, 2019 — despite ODH data tracing the first case back to Jan. 2, 2020. Garrity cited this faulty timeline as evidence showing how Ohioans lived with the disease for months without problems before the March and April lockdowns.
While the Pike County Health Department posted on Facebook that antibody testing detected a November 2019 case, the health commissioner later walked back the finding, saying it was likely either an asymptomatic case that occurred later on or a false positive.
She also expressed support for the “herd immunity” theory, in which officials remove all guardrails and let the disease run its course while protecting the vulnerable until enough people have been infected that COVID-19 runs out of viable hosts.
An epidemiologist told Nature the idea would lead to massive loss of human life and “unacceptable and unnecessary untold human death and suffering.”
It’s no surprise that HFO leaders are fans of the “Great Barrington Declaration,” which basically advocates letting COVID-19 rip through the population until “natural herd immunity” is achieved, while “protecting the vulnerable.” Never mind that, as I discussed, protecting the vulnerable is not possible when COVID-19 is spreading unchecked, while achieving “natural herd immunity” is impossible when we don’t even know how long immunity after COVID-19 infection lasts in those who recover. Even if it were possible, achieving “herd immunity” to COVID-19 in this way would result in many hundreds of thousands more deaths, and that doesn’t even count the long term sequelae of COVID-19 infection in many that leave them with chronic health problems. Whenever I see defenders of the Great Barrington Declaration, I like to point out that “natural herd immunity” is a trope that antivaxxers have been invoking for many years. Heck, Andrew Wakefield has advocated it for measles, even going so far as to claim that the measles vaccine is causing evolution of the measles virus in such a way that could result in mass extinction of the human race. Meanwhile, antivaccine “thought leader” Del Bigtree, who with Andrew Wakefield made the other antivaccine propaganda movie disguised as a documentary, VAXXED, has explicitly urged his viewers to “catch this cold” to achieve “natural herd immunity,” all while blaming those with chronic conditions that make them much more susceptible to severe disease and death from COVID-19 for having brought it on themselves through their lifestyles of drinking, overeating, and smoking to produce their chronic diseases.
In other words, antivaxxers don’t just resist reasonable, science-based public health interventions to slow the progress of a pandemic so that hospitals aren’t overwhelmed and fewer people die. They actively try to undermine them by urging each other to spread the disease, all in a futile attempt to achieve “herd immunity” (or just personal immunity). Does any of this sound familar? Does anyone remember “pox parties“? Del Bigtree’s idea is nothing more than pox parties repackaged for the COVID-19 era. (Fortunately, COVID parties still appear to be nothing more than an urban legend. For now.)
Those who were surprised at how quickly the antivaccine movement pivoted to go all in with antimaskers, anti-“lockdown” protesters, and COVID-19 conspiracy theorists and cranks need only realize one thing. This was entirely expected. Antivaxxers share one other thing with these COVID-19 cranks than a tendency towards conspiratorial thinking and conspiracy theories. Both groups share an unrelenting hostility towards public health. This hostility among antivaxxers towards public health interventions manifests itself with a refusal to take responsibility to do anything that decreases the risk of COVID-19 transmission and predates the pandemic. In recent years antivaxxers have manifested their hostility towards public health interventions not just in the form of resistance to school vaccine mandates, but in proposing laws and regulations that intended to make it more difficult for local health authorities to prevent and respond to outbreaks even leaving aside the issue of vaccines. For instance, in my own state, antivaccine-sympathetic legislators proposed a law that would have made it much more difficult to remove vulnerable unvaccinated students from school in the middle of an outbreak and removed a lot of flexibility to respond to outbreaks. More recently, a chickenpox outbreak at a high school in my state led antivaxxers there to protest the order to keep their unvaccinated children at home. Since the pandemic, in addition to examples mentioned above, antivaxxers have also joined COVID-19 conspiracy theorists in portraying contact tracing and quarantine as “subjugation.”
Here you can see why in 2020 resistance to public health interventions to slow the spread of COVID-19 and antivaccine beliefs tends to reside far more on the political right than the left. Certainly, it didn’t help that President Trump politicized masks, portraying wearing them as a sign of “weakness,” and “lockdowns,” which were characterized as tyranny. However, the affinity between COVID-19 “resisters” and antivaxxers goes deeper than that and likely would have manifested itself even without Trump in the White House. Quite simply, the affinity is an ideological resistance to public health interventions based on a false appeal to “personal responsibility” and a belief that personal freedom should always trump collective action in the service of public health. True, some of the resistance is also rooted in a belief that “natural” is always better than anything human-made or imposed; hence the belief in “natural herd immunity” as better than herd immunity due to vaccines, which would result in far fewer deaths, but most of it is rooted in a belief that the individual has little or no responsibility for collective health. It is a belief that antivaxxers long stated when they would derisively claim that their unvaccinated child shouldn’t be a concern to parents of vaccinated children, as though vaccines are 100% effective in all cases and herd immunity due to a vaccine isn’t real. (Of course, at the same time they seem to think we should all risk death by “catching this cold” to achieve illusory “natural herd immunity.”)
It was never just about vaccines, and antivaxxers were never just antivaccine. It was about public health and collective action, and antivaxxers were always anti-public health.