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Sen. Ron Johnson, who's seeking reelection, continues to facilitate spread of COVID misinformation

Sen.vRon Johnson
Maayan Silver (screenshot)
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin at a panel of fringe medical professional Monday, January 24, 2022, who espoused a range of controversial and debunked COVID misinformation.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, who is seeking reelection, again gave voice to medical conspiracy theories about COVID-19 on Monday. The Republican from Wisconsin held a panel discussion with doctors who question the science that’s backed by the mainstream medical community.

Johnson has often been accused of spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines that can protect against it.

He believes the medical establishment, the U.S. government and the media have suppressed information about medications, such as the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin for early treatment. Instead, he claims that they’ve been wrongly urging vaccination.

The supporter of former President Donald Trump is critical of the country’s mass vaccination campaign, at a time when there’s already significant vaccine hesitancy among some conservatives.

READ: Wisconsin's 2022 midterms: What are the advantages and challenges for incumbents in key races?

Johnson also has supported dubious theories, including that mouthwash can prevent people from becoming sick with the coronavirus.

His claim resulted in Listerine tweeting in December that its product does not kill the virus.

In December 2020, and again on Monday, Johnson hosted a discussion among controversial doctors who spread more potentially dangerous claims.

The panel was broadcast on a platform called Rumble because YouTube has suspended Johnson for the misinformation that he has disseminated about COVID-19.

More than 80,000 people watched the panel discussion online.

Some of the doctors who spoke have been banned from Twitter and YouTube for spreading vaccine misinformation. Others have been fired or suspended from their jobs.

At Johnson’s event on Monday, the doctors assailed the vaccine and masks, and instead, advocated “early treatment” with drugs like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.

Hydroxychloroquine is an anti-malaria drug that was touted by Trump in 2020. The FDA revoked emergency authorization, finding that the drug’s risks outweighed the benefits as a COVID-19 treatment.

Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic drug that’s been used to cure animals and people from worms and lice. Scientists say there’s insufficient evidence to recommend it for the treatment of COVID-19. They also say the drug can be dangerous, and that some people taking it to treat COVID-19 are overdosing. The American Association of Poison Control Centers says there was a 260% increase in ivermectin poison calls in 2021 compared to 2020.

At Monday’s panel discussion, Johnson offered up the opinions Dr. Pierre Kory, a former critical care specialist at UW Hospital and a central cheerleader of ivermectin as a cure-all.

Kory says the medical profession is wrongly focused on getting people vaccinated, and should be instead focused on treating people with these unproven drugs.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that Kory testified at Johnson’s December 2020 senate hearing that if people took the drug, they would not get sick.

The newspaper reports that eight months later, despite taking ivermectin weekly, Kory came down with COVID-19.

Another panelist, Dr. Aaron Kheriaty is a former California psychiatry professor who was fired by UC Irvine for refusing to get vaccinated. The LA Times reports Kheriaty had contracted COVID-19 and said he could rely only on natural immunity.

At Monday’s hearing, Kheriaty falsely claimed there has “not been a single reported case” of someone who has natural immunity transmitting the virus to others.

Yet people who have had COVID-19 once are getting reinfected. Doctors at Johns Hopkins Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response say that’s because a mild case of an illness may not result in strong natural immunity, and natural immunity to the coronavirus wanes over time.

The Johns Hopkins doctors also note that while getting COVID-19 is very risky, the risk of COVID-19 vaccine side effects are very low.

Another speaker at Johnson’s hearing, Dr. Ryan Cole, is a pathologist who was removed from one of Idaho’s largest health care networks.

Cole claims that vaccines are making omicron symptoms more severe. In fact, people who have been vaccinated ahead of time are getting much milder symptoms,according to NPR.

The Johnson panelists also tore into masks and mask mandates. The few dozen people who were in the room for the five-hour session were unmasked.

In a media advisory, Johnson’s staff said the senator also extended an invitation to appear at the panel to “individuals who have developed, promoted, and led the response to the pandemic over the last two years.” The group included the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the acting commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the acting director of the National Institutes of Health and the CEOs of the companies that manufacture the COVID-19 vaccine. None participated in the discussion.

Dr. Ben Weston, director of medical services for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management, says he’s not familiar with the doctors Johnson hosted at the panel discussion. Weston points out that there are about a million active physicians in the United States right now.

“So anytime you get a million of a group of people, there's going to be a few that are on the outside of perspectives and of medical opinion,” he says. “And so of a million people, you can find some that disagree that the vaccines work, they can read study, after study, after study … some of them are gonna read those studies and say, I don't believe it.”

Weston says the vast majority of doctors accept mainstream science about COVID-19 and the vaccines. He adds that the vast majority of doctors are vaccinated and have had their families get vaccinated. Weston says people who have questions should talk to their doctor.

“Not the doctor you see on YouTube, not me. If you don't trust me, that's fine. But talk to your doctor, whether it's your doctor in the emergency room, whether it's your family doctor, whether it's the orthopedic surgeon that operated on your knee, talk to the person you trust — ask them what they think about the vaccines, what they think about the boosters, what they think about the pandemic, and have that discussion, initiate that discussion and get yourself protected," he says.

On the subject of masks, Weston says numerous studies have shown that masks are layers of protection. “Different masks protect you to different levels, cloth masks are better than nothing. But they're not as good as [disposable] paper surgical masks, which are not as good as KN95s or N95s. These are fairly simple facts. These are facts that have been published and studied,” says Weston.

Weston, who’s also an associate professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin and a practitioner in the Level 1 Trauma Center at Froedtert Hospital, says he’s seen misinformation like what was spread at Johnson’s panel discussion throughout the pandemic.

“It’s been one of the largest challenges to messaging, but also to keeping people healthy. I think it's important to stick to the facts. And the facts of the matter are that vaccines work, high quality masking works, boosters work, distancing works. And when you put each of these layers together, you get heightened protection, you get less people infected, you get less people with severe disease that then can't participate in the workforce can't keep our infrastructure running," he says.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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