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Sen. Ron Johnson

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) repeatedly questioned the safety of COVID-19 vaccines in a Fox News appearance over the weekend.

The vaccines are safe and highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death from the virus.

In an interview with Fox News' Maria Bartiromo, Johnson falsely suggested that "mounting data" shows the life-saving vaccine is dangerous and ineffective, counter to overwhelming evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other medical experts.

"First of all, the mounting data shows that they're not working or are as safe as we all hoped and prayed they would be," Johnson said in response to a question about vaccine mandates.

Johnson's office did not immediately respond to an inquiry about what "data" the senator was referencing.

Johnson also gave misleading information about the vaccine's availability. Public health officials continue to stress the importance of getting vaccinated to slow the spread of the virus, which has already claimed the lives of more than 720,000 Americans.

Here are the facts:

  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized emergency use of three COVID-19 vaccines — from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson.
  • Numerous studies have shown that vaccines are highly effective at preventing infection, hospitalization, and death. Reports of serious side effects from the vaccine are incredibly rare.
  • Unvaccinated Americans are six times more likely to test positive for the virus than their vaccinated peers and are more than 11 times as likely to die from it, CDC data from August shows.
  • The vaccines have remained highly effective against serious illness and death from COVID-19, even as the delta variant — a deadly mutation of the virus — swept the country.
  • Of the 187 million Americans who were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Oct. 12, just 24,717 (0.01 percent) were hospitalized, and only 7,178 (0.004 percent) died, according to CDC data.

In the Fox interview, Johnson also highlighted reports of "vaccine injuries," falsely alleging that stories about side effects were being "suppressed." The senator pointed to data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, the system used to track severe reactions to vaccines, which show that approximately 0.002 percent of people who received a COVID-19 shot died shortly thereafter.

Yet as the CDC notes, "Reports of adverse events to VAERS following vaccination, including deaths, do not necessarily mean that a vaccine caused a health problem." In other words, this figure may have included people who died after receiving the vaccine, even if their actual cause of death had nothing to do with the vaccine.

Johnson also repeated a falsehood that "the only FDA-approved drug, the Comirnaty version of the Pfizer drug, I do not believe it's widely available," and suggested that "they're not going to be manufacturing the FDA version until they use up all the other versions that is only under emergency use."

In truth, vaccines remain widely available in the United States. Over 90 percent of Americans live within five miles of a vaccination site, according to the White House.

Further, there is no distinction between the Pfizer vaccine that received an emergency use authorization and the one that received full approval from the FDA. It is not a different "version" of the vaccine, as Johnson said. Pfizer simply gave its vaccine a new name — Comirnaty — after it gained full approval from the FDA.

Johnson's comments came as a part of a discussion pushing back on President Biden's vaccine mandates, which require most federal workers and employees of businesses with more than 100 workers to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing.

Johnson said such mandates are "pointless," and added that because there have been a few breakthrough cases, "there's no point to the mandate whatsoever."

This claim is also false. Early data has shown that such mandates are highly effective at encouraging vaccination. Initial fears about mass resignations have been overblown.

There is clear evidence that mandates work. They are hardly "pointless," as Johnson has argued. In Johnson's own home state of Wisconsin, hospital officials have said mandates encouraged more of their employees to get vaccinated.

Other Republican elected officials have even started to admit that COVID-19 safety requirements help curb the virus' spread.

"Many of our hospitals have put in a requirement for vaccines and the rate goes up — so, yes, there is an effectiveness there," Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in an interview with NBC on Sunday.

Polling shows that Americans largely support vaccine mandates. Fully 58 percent of Americans supported Biden's business mandate, a September Gallup poll found.

Americans don't just support the idea of vaccine mandates — they support the public officials who are willing to enact them. Governors in states which had enacted mandates were more popular than governors in states without mandates, a recent analysis from the Covid States Project found. Governors who moved to ban mandates were the least popular overall.

Despite all this evidence, Johnson has doubled down on his anti-vaccine comments.

But just one year ago, Johnson said that undermining vaccines "will cause people's deaths." Since then, Johnson has emerged as a key promoter of COVID-19 misinformation, which has prompted rebukes from public health officials.

Johnson is up for reelection in 2022. He has yet to announce whether he will again seek office, and has even acknowledged that he "may not be the best candidate."

Democratic candidates are already lining up to take on Johnson in the 2022 midterm election. One of those candidates is Gillian Battino, a radiologist who said Johnson's pandemic response inspired her to run against him.

"Unseating Ron Johnson, as a physician, I think it would send a message to the American people that Americans believe that science is real," Battino told the American Independent Foundation.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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