Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., speaks at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing on Feb. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., speaks at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing on Feb. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

Senator has a lengthy record of trying to diminish the scope of the pandemic by spreading false information and conspiracies.

US Sen. Ron Johnson will host an event Monday in Milwaukee at which he and other speakers will question the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, a move causing concerns among Wisconsin health officials and prompting at least one to call on Johnson to cancel the event. 

The Wisconsin Republican said he will be joined at the event by eight people, including former Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Ken Ruettgers’ wife Sheryl, who say they have experienced significant side effects after receiving the vaccine. Johnson said he believes it’s important for Americans to hear that not everyone has felt well after being vaccinated, even though that already is a widely known temporary condition that comes with being protected against an illness that has killed 600,000 in the US. 

“I’m glad that literally hundreds of millions of Americans have been vaccinated and been protected, but I don’t think you can ignore some of the issues, some of the problems,” Johnson told Fox 6 News in Milwaukee.

In response, Dr. Bob Freedland, a La Crosse ophthalmologist and the state lead for the Committee to Protect Health Care, said Johnson should cancel the event.

“As a physician and concerned constituent of Sen. Ron Johnson, I call on him to cancel his anti-vaccine event, or, better yet, use his platform and time to hold an event encouraging people to get the safe, effective vaccine. Johnson claims, clearly in bad faith, to just be sharing ‘the truth’ about vaccines, but the truth is that they’re safe, and they’re the best way for Wisconsinites to protect themselves and their loved ones from the deadly COVID-19 disease,” Feedland said in a statement. 

Earlier: ‘I’m Not Trying to Make Headlines,’ Ron Johnson Says About His Conspiracies

Johnson’s continued questioning of COVID-19 vaccines runs counter to repeated statements by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that research shows the vaccines are safe and are highly effective at preventing people who are vaccinated from contracting the virus. A total of 321 million vaccine doses have been given to Americans, and while serious health effects are rare, medical experts acknowledge they do happen.

Earlier this year Johnson said he didn’t plan to be vaccinated against COVID-19 because he had already contracted the virus. This, too, runs counter to CDC guidance that notes a person can become infected more than once with the coronavirus. YouTube recently suspended Johnson from uploading videos temporarily after he violated the company’s medical misinformation policies during a Milwaukee Press Club event. He previously advocated for using hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin as treatments for the virus despite the fact neither is proven as an effective treatment for the virus

Other Wisconsin public health officials said Johnson’s continued questioning of the safety of COVID-19 vaccines is exactly the wrong message to send to state residents as fewer than half of them have been vaccinated against the virus.

Statewide, 49.9% of people have received one vaccine dose, with just over 45% having received both doses to be fully vaccinated. That figure is far less than the 70% vaccination goal by July 4 President Joe Biden and health officials set, a figure at which disease spread is thought to slow significantly.

In recent weeks health officials across Wisconsin have stressed the need to continue to message the safety of the vaccines in an effort to overcome the hesitancy of some people to get it. During a call with media earlier this week to discuss vaccinations, state Department of Health Services Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk stressed the importance of consistently messaging the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines to boost vaccination totals. 

She acknowledged that some people have questions about the vaccine, and addressing their concerns while reassuring them about its safety is an effective means of convincing people it’s OK to get vaccinated. 

Significantly increasing the state’s vaccination rate “is still possible,” Willems Van Dijk said. “We need to keep up with all of our efforts.”

County health officers across northwest Wisconsin said ensuring people about the safety of the vaccines is a key part of their strategy to increase vaccination numbers. Those efforts have included pop-up vaccination pantries and enlisting the help of well-respected people in communities of color and other groups that tend to have lower vaccination rates. 

While those efforts are slowly increasing the number of people vaccinated, efforts such as Johnson’s questioning of vaccine safety only serve to spread mistrust that flies in the face of science, county health officers said. They said they will continue work to answer people’s concerns about the vaccines and to spread the message that they’re safe. 

“We still have a majority of our population that is not fully vaccinated, and that is concerning,” said Angela Weideman, director of the Chippewa County Health Department. “We will continue to message that it is extremely important for people to get vaccinated, especially with the different variants out there. We need to do this so we can reduce the risk of the virus.”