Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a noted vaccine skeptic, has once again cast doubt on the effort to inoculate Americans against the coronavirus on conservative radio ― this time by using real information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that has repeatedly been cited out of context by anti-vaccine campaigners.
The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, is an open-access system maintained by the CDC in order to track potential negative effects of immunizations.
As the VAERS website clearly states, the reports it contains have not been verified, and anyone with an internet connection can submit one.
It’s not new; the CDC has been running it for three decades. But during the coronavirus pandemic, it has become a weapon for conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccination activists who use the numbers found there to spread misinformation about vaccines.
Speaking with Vicki McKenna, a radio host in Madison, Wisconsin, Johnson brought up the VAERS system, saying, “We are over 3,000 deaths within 30 days of getting the vaccine. About 40% of those occur on day zero, one or two.”
McKenna, who has previously used her show to spread vaccine misinformation, chimed in to say that was “probably a number that’s lagging.”
The senator said he was merely “asking questions” and “sticking up for people who choose not to get vaccinated.”
CNN was first to report Johnson’s comments and, in statement to the network, a spokesperson for the senator said he “is not suggesting the deaths were directly caused by the COVID-19 vaccine,” but instead calling for authorities to take the VAERS submissions “seriously and research what is going on.”
Johnson did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
The Food and Drug Administration requires health care providers to report any death that occurs after vaccination so the agency can investigate to see if the vaccine may have played a role, or if the individual died of unrelated causes.
The CDC addresses potential misuse of the VAERS data right on its website, clearly stating that “COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.”
The U.S. has distributed 245 million doses of the vaccine through May 3, and among those who have received at least one, there have been 4,178 reports of death — or 0.0017% of those vaccinated.
“CDC and FDA physicians review each case report of death as soon as notified and CDC requests medical records to further assess reports,” according to the CDC’s website. “A review of available clinical information, including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records has not established a causal link to COVID-19 vaccines.”
Last month, Johnson ― who tested positive for the virus back in October ― made similar comments on McKenna’s show, saying that he was “highly suspicious” of the effort to vaccinate Americans against the deadly virus and saw “no reason to be pushing vaccines on people.”
He later doubled down on his stance, questioning why young and healthy people should seek to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
While the virus is particularly dangerous for the elderly, it can be deadly even in young and healthy people. In recent weeks, people under 50 made up roughly one-third of COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization, according to the CDC. People who require hospitalization are at an increased risk of dying of the virus.
The nation’s top medical experts also believe that COVID-19 vaccinations protect individuals much better than natural immunity developed by the body after a COVID-19 infection. Additionally, vaccines help protect others in a given community who may be more vulnerable to dying of the virus due to their age or health conditions.
Other elected Republicans have specifically urged Americans to seek vaccinations, citing their clear life-saving benefits.
After learning that Republican men have particularly high rates of vaccine hesitancy, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke out to encourage them to get the shot. A number of GOP doctors in Congress also recently collaborated on an ad with the same message.