Some influential Kansans are tinfoil-hat virus skeptics — that’s a health problem for us all

A sign at a grocery store saying masks were required did not deter a maskless couple who refused polite requests from the staff to mask up and made a point of getting uncomfortably close to everyone around them. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

No one could ignore the couple in the grocery store the other day who were roaming the aisles without masks. Not only were they the only people with bare faces, but the man was loudly proclaiming that COVID-19 was a hoax, that those who wore masks were sheep and that the vaccine was a conspiracy to change our genetic makeup.

“Hell, the chemicals at work are worse than this virus,” he declared.

He swore elaborately and looked quickly around, his eyes ablaze, as if daring anyone to challenge him. He appeared to be about 45 and his skin had the weathered look of somebody who had worked outdoors, and worked hard, for most of their life. He wore slicked back hair, a dark shirt and a wallet on a chain tucked into the pocket of his blue jeans.

The woman — his wife, a friend, kin? — said nothing but nodded in agreement with the man, her eyes searching the faces of others. She had one arm crossed over the other, and in her hand was a basket of snacks.

A sign on the door said masks were required, and had been since July 2020, but the couple was having none of that. They refused polite requests from the staff to mask up and made a point of getting uncomfortably close to everyone around them.

I did not avoid the man’s gaze, but I didn’t challenge him, either. What good would it have done? Besides, he looked like he could snap me in half. There were a dozen or so shoppers about, including some with children. I was standing well away from the couple, but the clerk at the checkout didn’t have it so lucky. She quickly rang up their groceries and made change for the man, who paid in cash.

Since becoming fully vaccinated — my second shot of Moderna was about three weeks ago — it’s been a surreal feeling to venture out more, as I imagine it must be for many non-essential workers. I’d come to the store for a tub of butter, but the array of varieties that confronted me seemed impossibly complicated. Then came the close encounter with the unmasked couple.

It was over quickly enough, but that voice insisting “hoax!” kept echoing in my mind.

Now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says fully vaccinated people can drop masks for most activities, such encounters will be less frequent. The unvaccinated should still wear masks, of course. But the problem of vaccine resistance remains.

There’s plenty of good advice from the CDC on how to talk to covid hoaxers and vaccine doubters: Listen to their concerns with empathy, acknowledge their emotions, ask permission to share reliable information, help them find a reason to be vaccinated. The reasons include protecting yourself and others from the virus, being able to return to more normal activities, and because it’s our best tool to stop the pandemic.

But I doubt my fellow shopper would buy any of it.

Here was yet another neighbor who was ingesting dangerous nonsense, perhaps influenced by GOP lawmakers, many who refused to wear masks during the legislative session, and influential groups like Kansans for Health Freedom who push junk science.

The reasons for vaccine hesitancy are complicated, and among my own circle of friends have ranged from a fear of needles to paranoia about adverse reactions. The vaccines available in the United State are safe, effective, and reduce your risk of severe illness.

Unfortunately, a significant number of Americans trust neither the news media nor official sources of information when it comes to covid, and that lack of confidence breaks predictably along partisan lines. In fact, a study of public attitudes by the Pew Research Center said that of 14 nations surveyed, no country has been as politically divided over its government’s handling of the outbreak.

Few times in the past 70 years have average Americans been required to sort through such an impossibly complicated avalanche of information and make critical choices about the health of themselves and their families. The closest we’ve come was when, in 1955, Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was announced. Polio, which killed 3,000 children in 1952 alone and left thousands more paralyzed, was so feared that movie theaters were closed during the summer months, when infections peaked. I was born after the polio scare, but one of my earliest and most frightening memories is watching newsreels of children in iron lungs. I also remember getting my polio vaccination at my elementary school, in the form of a sugar cube, an improvement over Salk’s needles.

The last recorded case of polio in the United States was in 1979.

But, because of how poor human beings are at assessing relative risk, there has always been a faction of society that is vaccine reluctant. This aversion is based largely on the perception of trust in government and institutions, and anything that shakes this trust has implications for the public health. During the polio vaccine rollout, it was a laboratory mistake that resulted in the deaths of 10 children. But the incident lead to federal protocols that resulted in the unprecedented safety of modern vaccines.

So, it’s not surprising that after the cratering of trust in government during the Trump era, we face unprecedented challenges to the public health. Last year, just 20% of Americans said they trust the federal government to “do the right thing” most of the time. This mistrust has been amplified on social media, manipulated for partisan ends and perpetuated by lobbyists and special interest groups.

Take Kansans for Health Freedom, for example. This group, whose website says it’s a “501c4 nonprofit,” has repeatedly questioned the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines. Their evidence ranges from the anecdotal to the just plain nutty. It has its own lobbyist, Debbie Mize, who offers legislators a point of view that is consistently against shutdowns, mask mandates, and other public health measures. Mize is the Kansas City chapter contact for the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit that says it advocates “wise traditions” in food, farming and medicine — but which embraces unorthodox dietary beliefs. These include the assertion that animal fats don’t cause heart disease, advocating the drinking of raw, unpasteurized milk, and deep suspicion about vaccinations.

The Price foundation (named for a 1930s “holistic” dentist) was co-founded in 1999 by Sally Fallon Morrell, whose most recent book asks the question: “Are there really such things as ‘viruses’? Or are electro smog, toxic living conditions, and 5G actually to blame for COVID-19?”

In a word, no. The 5G conspiracy theory has been thoroughly debunked.

But Morrell seems to think all influenzas — including coronaviruses — are caused by slight electromagnetic influences on the human immune system, going all the way back to sunspot activity in 1728, early radio in 1918, and 5G in 2019. When you take germ theory out of the equation, it takes some real tinfoil hat creativity to find other explanations.

Connie Newcome, who owns Herb House Natural Medicine in Inman and is a founder of Kansans for Health Freedom, testified in support of legislation banning employers from requiring workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. (Lucas Lord for Kansas Reflector)

The KFHF’s connection to the Weston A. Price Foundation is a strong one, as the Kansas group’s president, Connie Newcome, also leads the McPherson-Hutchinson chapter of raw milk drinking, contrary nutrition activists. A rational person might think such connections would disqualify KFHF from advising anybody on health matters, but you would be wrong. Mize — the KFHF lobbyist — has repeatedly bent the ears of Kansas legislators on a variety of health matters. So has Newcome, the owner of Herb House Natural Medicine in Inman, who has testified that doctors “bully” patients into getting vaccinated.

Now, this brings me back to the man in the butter aisle. What might I have said to him, given the right opportunity?

After asking just what chemicals he was worried about at work, I’d say this:

Look, we defeated polio because, as Americans, we came together behind science to save the lives of a few thousand kids every year, and to keep many more from being paralyzed. We made some mistakes, but we ended up saving far more lives than we would have otherwise, and we ended up beating polio in this country within a generation. We already knew that vaccines worked, because of the smallpox vaccine, which was first demonstrated back in 1796. Smallpox was the first and only disease to be completely eradicated, in 1980.

Now we’re faced with a pandemic that has claimed the lives of nearly 600,000 Americans — including 5,000 Kansans. We still have a chance to stop the virus, but only if we act quickly. It might seem now like we’re over the pandemic, but it’s a false sense of relief — the fall may bring yet another wave. You know, if we were back in the 1950s and you could see just one of those poor kids in an iron lung, I’d bet you would be first in line to help fight polio. Well, this is our polio moment.

So, roll up your sleeve and do your part. Cheers.

Then he would snap me in half.