A bitter rift has opened between those vaccinated against Covid-19 and those who have chosen to remain unvaccinated. Evidence of it is easy to find: just check out the comments following vaccine-related stories, where the debate is intense and acrimonious.
The level of animosity between the two groups is not surprising, as the choice can be a life-and-death decision.
Those who are vaccinated argue the vaccine protects them as well as those around them, while many vaccination opponents say it’s the shot and not the virus that will kill you.
Dr. Barry Zuckerman, professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine and a Wellfleet summer resident, says the evidence shows that Covid vaccines save lives.
“Disagreement about implications of health data is common, however the recent data that shows 99 percent of Covid deaths occur among nonvaccinated people is pretty clear cut,” Zuckerman wrote by email.
Well-organized social media campaigns have spread misinformation about the vaccines, saying that Covid testing is deeply flawed. They claim that Covid is not a threat and the large case numbers are the result of faulty testing. Vaccines are therefore unnecessary, they say, and possibly dangerous, due to adverse reactions. What’s not mentioned are the more than 600,000 deaths from Covid in the U.S. alone.
The Biden administration sees the misinformation campaign as a significant obstacle to reaching vaccination goals. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on July 15 “to slow the spread of misinformation,” which he called an “urgent threat.”
Murthy said the intent of those spreading misinformation may simply be to inform, not realizing the claims are false. The result, however, is that “it can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts,” Murthy said. “Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative.”
Many of the anti-vaccine campaigns back their claims with data from a government site called VAERS — the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System — used by the Centers for Disease Control to investigate reports of possible vaccine reactions.
Anyone can submit a report to VAERS; the data are raw. Vaccine safety experts at the CDC take the raw data and investigate reports of serious reactions, using patients’ medical records to learn more about what happened and to determine whether the reaction was connected to the Covid vaccine or to other medical conditions.
A nonprofit called the Center for Countering Digital Hate has identified 12 people behind most of the misinformation that’s posted on social media, calling them “The Disinformation Dozen.”
Topping the list is Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic physician. The New York Times called him “the most influential spreader of coronavirus misinformation online.” He uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Facebook has labeled or removed some of his posts, the Times reported. Twitter has also removed some posts, but Mercola’s anti-vaccination message is easy to find on YouTube.
The Center says “Joseph Mercola is a successful anti-vaccine entrepreneur, peddling dietary supplements and false cures as alternatives to vaccines. Mercola’s combined personal social media accounts have around 3.6 million followers.”
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is Number 2 on the Disinformation Dozen list. Kennedy, an anti-vaxxer long before Covid, gets his message out via his Children’s Health Defense website.
Closer to Home
The Independent received an email from an off-Cape vaccine opponent last week, who sent numerous links to reports on adverse reactions to the vaccine. She identified herself as a registered nurse named Rose Birrell and said she was cofounder of Health Professionals for Covid-19 Policy Correction.
The only evidence that this group exists is on a website called unite4truth.com.
Some checking by the Independent showed the woman was using a false name, which she later confirmed, saying she and other medical professionals who oppose the Covid vaccines fear they may be putting their jobs in jeopardy. Her real name is Deborah Lusignan.
When asked for information about other members of her group, Lusignan became agitated and broke off communications with reporters.
Most of the claims Lusignan made and links she provided were based on VAERS data, despite warnings by the CDC that the data had yet to be investigated.
It appears that she had been trying to spread her anti-vaccine message via smaller media outlets. The Vermont Independent published a lengthy account, promoting the Unite4Truth position that Covid testing should be discontinued and the emergency approval of the vaccines should be rescinded. Unite4Truth was described as a “global network of lawyers, doctors, scientists and citizens.”
United Cape Patriots
Members of the United Cape Patriots recently held a day-long demonstration on MacMillan Pier outside the state’s VaxBus, which had come to Provincetown to provide walk-in vaccinations following the Covid spike. The Patriots see vaccination as a medical freedom issue, “based on the most God-given right of bodily autonomy.” The group says its role is medical advocacy: giving people the tools to make informed decisions.
The group’s handouts at the VaxBus called the vaccines “experimental” and said “the vaccine may be more dangerous than the virus based on vax adverse events to date.” The flyer used VAERS data to promote its message.
Zuckerman called it a misuse of information. “VAERS specifically states their information does not prove a vaccine caused an adverse event,” he said by email. “Further investigation is needed to determine whether it was caused by a vaccine or a health-related problem of the patient.”
Adam Lange of Brewster, founder of the Patriots, argued that even if the raw data show considerably higher numbers than actual Covid vaccine-related adverse effects, they still show there is an adverse effect.
Lange would not say whether he has been vaccinated. “I’m healthy, I’m not elderly and not overly concerned about the virus,” he said. The elderly or immune-compromised would have to weigh the risk of COVID against the risk of adverse reactions from the vaccine, he said.
United Cape Patriot Jennifer Raffloer, who was distributing pamphlets in Provincetown, said they aren’t anti-vaccine. “We are pro-freedom,” she said. A few group members wear masks “but the majority do not.” Some are vaccinated, she said.
During a phone interview, Raffloer said she and her children will remain unvaccinated, having been “vaccine injured” in the past. “We are not anti-vaxxers. We are ex-vaxxers,” she said.
Raffloer said the public is putting people like Dr. Anthony Fauci “on a pedestal, following them blindly and trusting what they’re saying.”
Zuckerman took issue with Raffloer’s comments. “Testing of the vaccines has shown they are safe and effective, leading the FDA to give it conditional approval, which includes approval by an independent outside group of scientists,” he said.
The agency has continued to closely monitor millions of vaccine recipients, he said. “Based on this, the FDA will likely give final approval soon.”