Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who himself declined a COVID-19 vaccine, is now questioning why the American population needs to get vaccinated en masse, putting life-saving public health messaging at risk.
“Why is this big push to make sure everyone gets a vaccine?” Johnson said in an appearance on conservative talk radio host Vicki McKenna’s show this week, adding that he was “highly suspicious” of the effort to mass vaccinate the general public.
Johnson said he sees “no reason to be pushing vaccines on people,” saying their distribution should have been focused only at the most vulnerable populations.
“If you have a vaccine, quite honestly, what do you care if your neighbor has one or not?” Johnson asked. He also questioned the efficacy of the vaccines themselves, saying they were not “fully approved” — while also arguing that not everyone needed to receive one because they are so effective.
Three vaccines have been authorized by the federal government (though distribution of the Johnson & Johnson shot was briefly paused by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration last week), all of which have gone through clinical studies with tens of thousands of participants. They were authorized for distribution through a fast-tracked emergency use process.
Johnson expanded on his comments in a statement to HuffPost.
“Everyone should have the right to gather information, consult with their doctor and decide for themselves whether to get vaccinated,” he said. “I believe government’s role (and therefore my role) is to help ensure transparency so that people have as much information as possible to make an informed decision for themselves.”
Johnson added that he had supported Operation Warp Speed, the vaccine-development program spearheaded by former President Donald Trump, and “celebrated its astonishingly rapid success,” but also cast doubt about the vaccines it helped produce.
“It is a legitimate question as to whether people at very low risk of suffering serious illness from Covid, particularly the young and healthy, should be encouraged to take a vaccine that is being administered under an Emergency Use Authorization,” Johnson said in the statement to HuffPost.
More than 200 million vaccine doses have been administered in the United States so far, and more than half of adult Americans have received at least one dose. Among Americans over 65, more than 80% have had at least one shot.
The Biden administration is aiming to get 80% of adult Americans vaccinated by summer. As new, more-contagious variants of the disease develop, the level of herd immunity needed to return to a pre-pandemic way of life has increased, according to the nation’s top scientists. More than 570,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, and case numbers remain high.
Unlike other countries that are still struggling with getting enough shots, the United States’ biggest obstacle in the months ahead is overcoming vaccine hesitancy, much of which has been concentrated in the South and parts of the Great Plains. Vaccine hesitancy has life or death consequences and also threatens prospects of economic recovery.
Johnson has explicitly rejected the scientific consensus on COVID-19. He said he wouldn’t get the vaccine because he already recovered from the disease in October. However, the CDC has said there is not enough data to know how long immunity lasts after contracting it.
He has previously said that the country had “grossly overreacted” to the pandemic, and repeatedly raised fringe and contrarian theories and conspiracies about the disease and treatments.
The Wisconsin Republican — who is up for reelection in 2022 but has not yet announced whether he’ll be running — is also bucking his party leadership’s messaging on the vaccine. In late March, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell specifically encouraged Republican men, who have some of the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy, to get the shot.
“I can say, as a Republican man, as soon as it was my turn, I took the vaccine. I would encourage all Republican men to do that,” McConnell said.
The Wisconsin Senate race will be one of the country’s most watched next year. In 2018, voters elected Democrats statewide in 2018, and the state flipped blue for Joe Biden. With a Senate seat now also in the balance, Democratic groups have already jumped on Johnson’s comments. American Bridge, the liberal Super PAC that spent more than $84 million during the 2020 presidential election cycle, blasted out Johnson’s comments to its email list.
“More people will get COVID and die due to Ron Johnson’s comments yesterday,” said American Bridge 21st Century spokesperson Zach Hudson. “He’s a disgrace and Wisconsin can’t get rid of him soon enough.”