As a physician, I make medical decisions based on science, evidence and best practices. That’s because, like most professionals, I want my patients to be able to trust me and receive optimal outcomes. For many working people, following the science and doing our best work with integrity is essential to keeping people safe. Unfortunately, one of the people entrusted by Wisconsinites to keep them safe and share honest information has been doing the opposite.
In a recent column in the right-wing Washington Examiner, our senior U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson argued that getting vaccinated is a personal choice, ignoring the fact that by being vaccinated, one can help protect those around them, too. He lays out a series of false claims about the COVID-19 vaccine, including that it could harm those who already had COVID-19 and that there is “no benefit” to those who hae been infected in getting it.
Johnson loses any remaining credibility when he wrongly claims his bout with COVID-19 has given him “the best immunity possible.” To justify his refusal to get vaccinated, he claims—again, wrongly—that natural immunity is as good as, if not better than, the immunity derived from vaccines. The fact is scientists still don’t fully know the duration and durability of immunity provided by the vaccines. More important, vaccinations give people immunity without sickness, suffering and mass death.
By refusing to encourage people to get vaccinated and overestimating his own natural immunity, Johnson withholds the crucial fact that if COVID-19 had been allowed to tear through America and naturally sicken people, millions of Americans could have died. This is the crucial life-and-death distinction between herd immunity through natural infection and immunity through vaccinations, which are the safe, ethical path toward developing widespread community-level immunity without needlessly sacrificing lives.
His misunderstanding of immunology aside, Johnson is also abdicating his duty as an elected leader to share potentially life-saving information with Wisconsinites. The people most resistant to vaccinations—white, conservative Republicans—are also more likely to listen to someone such as Johnson, a white, conservative Republican, about the value of getting vaccinated.
Johnson claims he did not “enter the vaccine maelstrom voluntarily.” But as an elected leader for our state and nation, he is in a position of great responsibility, and we should be able to expect him to answer and answer truthfully. Just as we expect doctors to answer the questions we pay them to answer, Johnson, having been in office for more than 10 years now, should expect to be a leader constituents can look up to and get guidance from.
But worse than feigning no responsibility in encouraging Wisconsinites to get vaccinated, Johnson goes further. He actually undermines trust in the vaccines, insinuating they were unleashed as some sort of nefarious experiment. More repulsive is Johnson’s repetition of the lie that COVID-19 vaccines have killed thousands of people, a lie Tucker Carlson cobbled together from a willful misinterpretation of unverified preliminary data and which Johnson parroted on another radio interview only to repeat in his column a few weeks later.
Imagine if a physician or a car mechanic used imprecise language and innuendo to deliver a diagnosis. At the auto shop, you would feel differently if you were told, “You need new brakes,” compared to, “Maybe you need new brakes, maybe you don’t.” As a patient you would feel differently if I concluded my consultation with you by definitively saying, “You don’t have cancer,” instead of, “Do you have cancer?”
Worse, imagine if they gave you false information based on fringe theories that weren’t part of their training.
Johnson is using his high-profile platform to do these things simultaneously. He is playing a dangerous game, and he knows it. He alternates between two roles: effectively promoting conspiracy theories while telling people who listen to him to get information for themselves.
These actions from an elected leader are not just unprofessional, they are dangerous. His insistence that there are two sides to the vaccine story, and his continual pushing of the incorrect side, betray constituents’ trust, risk lives and make us all worse off.
Johnson is right about one thing in his column, though—that he is not a doctor or medical researcher. If he were, and he communicated to patients what he has to Wisconsinites, he would be fired.