Dr. Farhan Bhatti: GOP leaders spreading COVID vaccine misinformation are prolonging the pandemic

May 17, 2021 3:53 am

Laina G. Stebbins graphic, Susan J. Demas photo

Now that COVID-19 vaccines are widely available for everyone, much of my work as a physician has been encouraging my patients to choose to take the vaccine.

It’s natural for people to have questions, and I’m happy to answer them. When hesitant patients and I work from the same set of facts, I can persuade them that the vaccine is safe and will protect them and others. But today, misinformation makes it much more difficult for doctors like me to help patients make the right choice — and many leaders in Lansing are making it worse.

Like most people, I want Michiganders to get vaccinated so we can achieve community immunity, reduce sickness and prevent deaths from COVID-19. As more people get vaccinated, we get closer to resuming the activities we all miss, safely and responsibly. Hugs. Eating in restaurants. Gathering after a high school game. We all want this.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants this, too, so she’s set some benchmarks for doing them safely. With 55% of Michiganders vaccinated, we can begin to return to our workplaces. When Michigan hits 70%, we can more or less get back to normal.

Republican lawmakers claim they also want kids to go back to their classrooms and restaurants to reopen fully. Michigan House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) asked: “How are we going to get out of this pandemic? What happens next month or two months or three months if we have a variant or a vaccine-resistant variant?”

The correct, evidence-based answer is that we encourage as many people as possible to get vaccinated. Wentworth and Republican colleagues should be joining doctors and faith leaders, and businesses in sharing facts and urging vaccinations.

Instead, these Republican legislators hosted a circus of conspiracy theorists to denounce vaccines at a hearing for legislation to end the nonexistent scourge of vaccine passports — which Whitmer isn’t planning to use — and which a majority of Michiganders support anyway.

At the hearing on that legislation, House Bill 4667, Republicans invited a witness, Naomi Wolf, who compared vaccinations to the Nazi Holocaust. Wolf, who has no expertise in medicine or quantum physics, had once suggested in a tweet that COVID-19 vaccines enabled time travel.

Instead of inviting doctors and nurses to describe heartbreaking, real scenes of death and sickness as a way to urge Michiganders to follow evidence-based safety measures that can protect people, Republicans chose to hear from a witness who has falsely claimed that COVID-19 doesn’t affect children. Just a couple of weeks earlier, Michigan reported record high hospitalizations of children.

Another witness at that same legislative hearing, state Board of Education member Nikki Snyder, falsely claimed COVID-19 vaccines are an experiment on Americans. And the sponsor of HB 4667, Rep. Sue Allor (R-Wolverine), publicly stated she refuses to get vaccinated.

The misinformation didn’t start at that hearing. Recently, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) falsely stated that Michigan had achieved community immunity because, as he said, 70% of the state’s population was immune to COVID-19. Shirkey demonstrated both how little he understands immunity and facts, since only 40% of Michiganders had been vaccinated at the time he made his wild claim.

And just before that, their Republican colleague Rep. Steve Carra (R-Three Rivers) “said he’s refusing a COVID vaccine because of its emergency authorization, what he feels is pressure from the government and concerns about vaccination and immunization records.” Every concern he cited is medically, factually and operationally inaccurate.

These lawmakers aren’t acting in good faith. By slinging disinformation at us by the wagon loads, these politicians want to overwhelm us, calculating that Michiganders will give up trying to sift a few nuggets of facts from the mountain of baloney. Persuasion isn’t the goal. Paralysis is.

Which brings me back to my patients.

More and more these days, after I share stats and facts about the effectiveness and safety of COVID-19 vaccines, I don’t get counter-arguments or opposing viewpoints. I get a shrug, a look of resignation in my patients’ eyes, as if to say, “Phew, I don’t know, doc, there’s just so much out there we don’t know.”

Too many of us don’t know because by the time facts put on their shoes, lies have already flown around the world. With social media, falsehoods spread farther and faster than facts by orders of magnitude.

But setting aside social media, we should expect better from the people in the Legislature who are privileged to have platforms they could be using to help save lives and more quickly get us back to normal.

If Republicans in the Legislature truly want Michigan to get back to normal, they must cease elevating conspiracy theorists and misinformation, and start working from the same set of facts.

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Farhan Bhatti
Farhan Bhatti

Dr. Farhan Bhatti is a family physician in Lansing and Michigan State Lead for the Committee to Protect Health Care.