How the anti-COVID vaccine movement mobilized in Michigan before anyone ever got their first shot 

By: - March 2, 2021 5:22 am

Conservative protest at the Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 30, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

Not long after the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in Michigan almost exactly one year ago, so did those opposed to any future vaccine. 

Buoyed by decades of an anti-vaccination movement, in Michigan and across the country, anti-vaccination activists were determined to cast doubt on a COVID-19 vaccine not yet created. They combined sharing longtime falsehoods about vaccines on social media — that the government uses them to implant microchips in people to control them, for example — with something newer: a growing, often right-wing, anger over Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s health restrictions and the doubt that then-President Trump and other Republican leaders publicly cast on COVID-19 being a serious public health threat.

Donning signs and shirts emblazoned with vaccine conspiracy theories at this past year’s protests against the governor’s stay-at-home orders in Lansing and across the state, anti-vaxxers aligned themselves with people that, thus far, had not been seen as close allies of the anti-vaccination movement: militia members and white supremacists. But amidst people waving Confederate flags and images depicting Whitmer as Hitler were those railing against vaccines.

“I do see some new things [about the anti-vaccine movement], and that is the move from a feminized, mother-focused, natural living focus to this highly masculinized, anti-mask, gun rights mobilization,” Dr. Anna Kirkland, director of the Institute for Research and Gender and a professor of health management and policy and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, said during a January webinar on vaccine hesitancy.

“The gun thing is new,” Kirkland continued. “I did not in any of my research see links to gun rights and militia movements, and now we have seen that.” 

Dominated by “overwhelming whiteness” and “fundamentally led and funded by the right-wing,” the anti-vaccine movement has an “inner core that’s probably realistically unreachable” in terms of changing their views on vaccines, Kirkland said. But, she added, how, and if, the most ardent anti-vaxxers are shaping the stances of more moderate people who are on the fence as to whether or not to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and other vaccines, is a crucial public health question.

“How is that core, and perception of that core, going to affect the more ordinary, less engaged people who are having doubts about vaccines?” Kirkland asked. “Is it going to cleave, where people will be like, ‘I don’t want to be on that team,’ or is it going to radicalize and spread even more with some of these problems?”

Right now, academics said it’s difficult to say with any certainty what the answers to those questions are, but they are concerned about the influence of anti-vaxxers on a public that, over the past 20 years or so, has grown increasingly skeptical about vaccines. While faith in vaccines remains high, it is slipping. Eighty-four percent of Americans said in 2020 that it is extremely important for parents to vaccinate their children, compared to 94% in 2001, according to a Gallup poll. And the World Health Organization in 2019 named vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health.

How the anti-vaxxer movement has changed

In Michigan, a libertarian-friendly political culture that includes a long history of militias and general distrust in the government paved the way for the proliferation of an anti-vaccination movement in the state over the past 20-plus years, according to Tim Michling, a research associate with the Citizens Research Council of Michigan who focuses on health policy.

“There’s a strong connection between vaccine hesitancy and general mistrust of government and general corporate suspicions, especially of the pharmaceutical industry,” Michling said. “… In the history of Michigan politics, there’s a libertarian streak. We have the militia presence and a lot of mistrust of government in certain parts of the state.”

In the late 1990s, Michigan’s modern-day anti-vaccination movement was in large part ignited by a global anti-vaccination movement rooted in a discredited and retracted academic paper that was written by a now-delicensed doctor who laid the groundwork for the myth that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is connected to autism. 

The Michigan movement, previously dominated by white and often more affluent and educated individuals who spanned the political spectrum, has, at least in regards to the COVID-19 vaccine, morphed into a space increasingly filled by people who also are white but are less educated, less affluent and Republicans, particularly anti-lockdown protesters who frequently share everything from vaccine conspiracy theories to vehement criticism of Whitmer and the state health department on social media.

The thread that ties the current anti-vaxxers to those of years past is a suspicion of authority, Michling noted. [Well, except if that authority is Trump. Anti-vaxxers and the conspiratorial MAGA world are increasingly one and the same.]

“There’s a whole spectrum of science denial, from people who deny the impact of climate change to the anti-vax movement; they’re all rooted in this anti-authority position,” Michling said.

Tim Michling

“Because the anti-vax movement was already established, and you have social [media] groups, Facebook groups, and other online communities of people who are like-minded in their opposition to vaccines, when COVID came along, people were coming up with all kinds of narratives about why the vaccine is terrible even before it was developed,” Michling continued. “Because they were already organized, they were able to mobilize quickly.”

Anti-vaxxers were certainly able to spread their messages denouncing the COVID-19 vaccine — and fast — with the advent of the pandemic, often by mixing a whirlwind of anti-vaccine falsehoods and messages denouncing Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders. 

And despite social media attempts to curb vaccine misinformation, that anti-vaccine activity has persisted. A quick search on Facebook recently yielded anti-vaccination activists and groups from Michigan with tens of thousands of followers. Other individuals and groups are active on platforms like Parler, the right wing’s social media darling, and YouTube, including Garrett Soldano, the Kalamazoo-based chiropractor who launched “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine,” a now-banned Facebook group with hundreds of thousands of followers that organized armed protests at the state Capitol in Lansing. Soldano, an ardent critic of Whitmer and the COVID-19 vaccine, not long ago started a similar Facebook group, “Michigan Needs an Adjustment,” runs a “Stand Up Michigan” account on Parler, and frequently publishes on YouTube.

Other groups, like Michigan for Vaccine Choice, are organizing at least in part off of social media, including holding monthly meetings — what they’re billing as “activist calls” — about anti-vaccination efforts. On Thursday, for example, the group held a meeting featuring an attorney speaking about the ways in which people can apply for vaccine waivers, both for school children and in the workplace, as well as ongoing efforts to challenge Michigan’s vaccine mandates for schoolchildren, something that’s been backed in recent years by GOP lawmakers in the Legislature. 

Despite widespread efforts to discredit vaccines, and specifically the COVID-19 vaccine, the majority of Michiganders say they plan on definitely getting the COVID-19 shots. 

In Michigan, 57% of adults in Michigan reported they would definitely get a COVID-19 vaccine — higher than the 54.7% of adults nationwide, according to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau from Jan. 20 through Feb. 1. The data collected is part of the Census Bureau’s “Household Pulse Survey,” which has been ongoing since April 2020 and aims to gauge how Americans are faring during the pandemic. Using information from a variety of federal government agencies, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Health Statistics, the Census Bureau publishes national and state data on a wide variety of topics in the surveys, from vaccine hesitancy to the impact of online learning, hunger during the pandemic and more.

In addition to the 57% of Michiganders who are expected to definitely receive a COVID-19 vaccine, 21% of Michigan adults said they probably will receive the vaccine, according to the Census Bureau. Meanwhile, 10.6% reported they definitely will not and 10.9% said they probably will not get the vaccine. 

Michigan health officials have a goal of vaccinating at least 70% of the population in order to reach herd immunity.

Dr. Abram Wagner

Certainly not all, or even a majority, of the individuals who reported feeling uncertain about the vaccine are ardent anti-vaxxers. Michling and Dr. Abram Wagner, a research assistant professor of epidemiology who studies vaccine hesitancy at the University of Michigan, emphasized that people expressing vaccine hesitancy — everyone from those who say they definitely won’t get the vaccine to those who aren’t sure — make up a wide range of the population, from anti-vaxxers long involved in vaccine politics to Black individuals wary of a health care system plagued by systemic racism

The Census Bureau reported that Black individuals and women had higher rates of vaccine hesitancy than their white and male counterparts, with 40.8% of Black Michiganders saying they definitely would receive the vaccine, compared to 59.5% of white people. Fifty-one percent of women said they’ll definitely get the vaccine, compared to 62.7% of men.

Republicans too make up a large chunk of the vaccine hesitant population.

While the Census Bureau does not have a breakdown of this data based on political affiliation for Michigan, or any state, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported in December that Republicans constitute the group for which vaccine hesitancy is highest — 42% reported they definitely or probably would not get vaccinated, compared to 27% of the general public nationally. They are followed by those ages 30 to 49 (36%) and rural residents (35%). 

State Rep. Steve Carra (R-St. Joseph), who participated in a protest outside the Pfizer building in Portage while President Joe Biden was touring it last month, is one of the adults in Michigan who said he doesn’t plan on getting the vaccine.

Rep. Steve Carra

“This is a brand new, not well researched, quickly rammed through process,” Carra said of the COVID-19 vaccines. “People who are concerned because they have health conditions and they want to weigh the pros and cons may find it in their interest to get it. I understand that, and I respect that decision.”

Medical experts disagree with Carra about the vaccines not being well-tested. In previous interviews with the Michigan Advance, experts said they’re thrilled with how quickly the vaccines have appeared on the scene — it’s the fastest the world has ever seen a vaccine — and emphasized they are safe. Still, Michling said it’s understandable that people would be worried about the speed with which the vaccine came out.

“In terms of concerns about the vaccine coming out too quickly, that’s one of the most common reasons people have about [being hesitant to take] the vaccine,” he said. “That’s a perfectly rational response. We haven’t seen a vaccine developed this quickly in any of our lifetimes. I think health professionals need to answer that with information that we have this Operation Warp Speed, but the COVID vaccine we have is based on technology developed in previous outbreaks. Our experience with the first SARS coronavirus gave some basis for the technology used in the Covid vaccine.”

Despite experts citing the vaccines’ safety and efficacy, Carra is one of a long line of Republican officials, in Michigan and nationally, who say getting the vaccine is not in their future, from Trump to Muskegon County Commissioner Zach Lahring — who wrote on Facebook that he would “take that shot the day they pry my weapon out of my cold dead fingers.” However, news broke this week that Trump and former first lady Melania Trump, who both had COVID last fall, did receive the vaccine in January.

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) declined an interview for this article and his spokesperson did not respond to an email clarifying whether or not Shirkey has gotten the vaccine or plans to receive it. House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) did not respond to a request for comment.

Zach Lahring Facebook post

Still, while 42% of Republicans nationally say they definitely or probably won’t get the vaccine, that leaves 58% who definitely or likely will. High-profile conservatives who have received the vaccine include former Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). 

Michiganders cited a wide variety of reasons as to why they’re not sure if they will get the vaccine, according to the Census Bureau.

Of the Michigan adults who expressed hesitancy about getting the vaccine — including those who said they probably, but not definitely, will receive it — about half are concerned about possible side effects, according to the Census Bureau. Forty-two percent plan to wait and see if the vaccine is safe before getting it (again, health experts emphasize that the vaccines are safe and effective). 

Many more Michiganders said they specifically don’t trust the COVID-19 vaccine compared to vaccines in general: the Census Bureau reported 23.8% don’t trust the COVID-19 vaccine. Seven percent do not like vaccines in general. Twenty percent said they “don’t know if a vaccine will work,” and 18% were hesitant to get it because they don’t trust the government. (These figures add up to more than 100% because individuals can select more than one option for why they were hesitant to receive a COVID-19 vaccine).

Historically, the anti-vaccination movement has been made up of people who are slightly more educated than the average individual — but that has changed with regards to the COVID-19 vaccine, Michling noted. 

“What you find is that people who have a college education in engineering or something assume they understand science; they’ll look for information online and confirmation bias sets in,” Michling said. “They find information that confirms their beliefs.” 

With the onset of COVID-19, however, the individuals who are the most educated tend to be the most in favor of getting the vaccine. Of those who have received a bachelor’s degree or higher, 68.8% said they would definitely get the COVID-19 vaccine, while 46.9% of people who did not graduate from high school reported they would definitely get it, according to the Census Bureau. And the more affluent a Michigander is, the more likely they are to be in favor of getting the vaccine. Sixty-eight percent of those making $200,000 and above said they would definitely get the vaccine; 54.6% of people making $25,000 or less reported the same.

“To me, that says while you might not be able to change the minds of people who, for various social or cultural or political reasons are opposed to vaccines, but there are many people out there who just have questions,” Michling said.

Interestingly, some of those who are most likely to want a COVID-19 vaccine are the oldest and youngest adults in Michigan: 72.7% of people over the age of 65 said they will definitely get a vaccine, and 69% of 18- to 24-year-olds reported the same. That drops to 45% for both 25- to 39-year-olds and 40- to 54-year-olds, and 62% for people ages 55 to 64, according to the Census Bureau.

It’s important, Michling emphasized, to respond to those who have questions about the COVID-19 vaccines “with empathy and acknowledge their concerns and uncertainty rather than meeting people with ridicule, because that tends to entrench people in their own beliefs.”

“It’s a scary time for a lot of people; any amount of empathy that can be shown, whether it’s from health officials or neighbors, that’s really important,” he said.

Empowering people to leave hesitancy behind 

In addition to general empathy, public health experts said persuading those who are vaccine hesitant to get the COVID-19 shots has to be a multi-tiered campaign catered to different needs, from access (having people be able to easily walk or be transported to vaccine centers in their own neighborhoods, for example) to the state partnering with local groups and leaders already trusted by marginalized communities. 

Currently, the state is partnering with a variety of smaller facilities, such as pharmacies, barber shops, and more, both as vaccination or future vaccination sites and as ways to spread accurate information about the vaccines. 

“I think the state has done a good job of providing lots of transparent information about the coronavirus and the vaccine, but for people who don’t trust the state health department, that may not be where they go for information,” Michling said. “The more businesses, religious organizations, social groups, universities and other partners step up and engage with local health departments to help with the vaccine effort, the sooner we’ll get to some level of herd immunity,” Michling said.

Dr. Susan Woolford, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, noted that community partnerships are crucial — but they have to be founded on more than just pushing the vaccine. For Black and Brown communities who have been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic, partnerships solely to offer the vaccine, as opposed to also being invested in dismantling structural racism in health care, could ring hollow, she explained during the University of Michigan’s January webinar on vaccine hesitancy.

“Being sure we come to [the partnerships] with transparency and respect I think are really important,” Woolford said during the webinar. “Acknowledging the problems that exist and partnering, asking for help in addressing this … makes a huge difference.”

Woolford said she hopes the work being done to connect with communities of color will continue far beyond the pandemic. 

“We invest billions in developing the vaccine, very appropriately,” she said. “I think we need to invest more in these relationships that will allow us to improve health, both with vaccinations and in all the other areas where health disparities exist.”

Wagner, an epidemiologist from University of Michigan, agreed. 

“You need to have a connection to a community,” he said. “They need to know you, that you show up. If you have a conversation about their concerns around Covid, they need to know who you are and trust what you say…That’s not necessarily something you can pull out of a hat and in a week develop this strong community connection.”

Wagner emphasized there’s now an important chance to forge those connections. 

“There’s never been any other time in American medicine where there’s been a stronger recognition of racial disparities” and the chance to dismantle structural racism, at least in part, through listening to, and partnering with, communities of color, he explained.

Dr. Debra Furr-Holden

In the meantime, Wagner said it’s “important to tailor messages [about the COVID-19 vaccine] to certain groups based on the structural disparities that they face.”

Dr. Debra Furr-Holden, the associate dean for public health integration at Michigan State University and the director of the Flint Center for Health Equity Solutions, said in a previous interview with the Michigan Advance that greater access to the vaccine will pave the way for more people deciding to get it.

For example, Furr-Holden personally knows health care workers in Genesee County, where Flint is located, who did not get the vaccine as soon as they were eligible because their employers wouldn’t give them time off to get the shot.

“Many of the health care workers I spoke to said, ‘If I had been given the day off, I would’ve gotten the vaccine,” Furr-Holden said.

To address this, Furr-Holden is advocating for the federal government to implement an equity mandate with the vaccine distribution and administration efforts. As part of that, she said, employers could be directed to provide paid days off for employees to get a vaccine.

“We gave this vaccine to states and counties with no conditions attached,” she said. “Because of the way our society works, there is a natural drift to inequity. Those who are connected and in power and privileged have an automatic ability to move to the front of the line, and that’s what we’ve seen happen.”


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is a former assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats included economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.