Physicians are working to combat misinformation dispersed by Kansans for Health Freedom and other groups about the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, which help prevent serious illness and death from the virus. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — A prominent anti-vaccination group has planned a “freedom rally” for Monday in Lenexa with the sponsorship of a nursing agency, midwifery, dental office, chiropractors, pharmacies and businesses that promote the healing properties of elderberries, tea biotics, red light therapy, hemp and gluten-free baked goods.
Kansans for Health Freedom identified 16 “professional partners” in emails to its followers in advance of the annual all-day rally. An $89 ticket gains entry to a church where political figure Kris Kobach will join a stable of speakers with a history of downplaying the pandemic and sowing disbelief in the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
The lineup includes a street preacher from Alberta, Canada; a pastor-physician from Houston who attributes some health failings to aliens and witches; and an Ohio attorney known for filing incomprehensible lawsuits based on dubious claims about COVID-19.
Kansans for Health Freedom identifies the following as its “professional partners.” These sponsors “receive a HUGE packet of KSHF materials and goodies,” among other benefits, when they sign up for annual fee of $150.
- Back to Nature in Hutchinson
- Covenant Health & Diagnostics in Newton
- Scoby Tea Biotics in Olathe
- OO Bakes in Lawrence
- Trinity Nursing in Salina
- Hendrickson Chiropractic in Hesston
- Empower Life in Topeka
- KMS Enterprises in Inman
- CK Pharmacies in Moundridge, McPherson and Peabody
- Hari Om Hemp in Shawnee
- Kansas City Dental Works in Lenexa
- Salt City Chiropractic in Hutchinson
- Simply Midwifery in Colby
- The Law Office of William D. Mize in Overland Park
- Thrive Chiropractic in Topeka
- Whispering Elm Farm in Paola
This misinformation conclave coincides with a surge in hospitalizations and deaths caused by the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 and individuals who refuse a free, safe and effective vaccine. The surge has overwhelmed hospitals, jeopardizing vaccinated residents who need treatment for conditions not related to the virus.
State officials reported 308 deaths from COVID-19 between Sept. 1 and Friday. Just 59.4% of eligible Kansans are fully vaccinated.
Physicians who spread lies about the virus risk losing their medical license. Different standards may apply to other types of medical professionals, like the ones who sponsor Kansans for Health Freedom.
“Most likely these providers aren’t those that are in the trenches every day seeing dying patients,” said Dena Hubbard, a neonatologist and board member of the Kansas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“They aren’t in ICU with patients begging their families by facetime or video to get the vaccine before they get intubated and will likely die, wishing they had gotten theirs but it’s too late,” Hubbard said. “They aren’t caring for the pregnant mom on the ventilator in the ICU. They aren’t discharging premature infants to a home with a mother that died from COVID.”
Jennifer Bacani McKenney, a Fredonia physician who serves as the Wilson County health officer, said Kansans for Health Freedom and its sponsors are hurting Kansans.
Last year, she said, “we were all scared together and just tried our best.” This year, there are vaccines. But physicians aren’t just fighting the virus anymore — “we’re fighting misinformation and anti-vaxers and ivermectin, conspiracy theories, and all this stuff.”
“It’s not OK to spread misinformation,” Bacani McKenney said. “It’s not OK to sponsor people who are spreading misinformation, whether you’re a business or whether you’re somebody on social media. It’s not OK. That’s my message to the businesses: It’s not OK. You’re hurting people. And you’re killing people by supporting groups like this that are anti-vax, that are doing things that do directly hurt Kansans and hurt our friends and family members and neighbors.”
Kansans for Health Freedom identifies itself as a nonprofit, grassroots organization promoting parental rights and religious freedom, using a name and language nearly identical to groups in other states. In its new Truth to Freedom podcast, the group says it was formed by three “praying grandmothers” in 2019.
Each episode of the podcast concludes with this notice: “This podcast is for informational purposes only and is not to be used as medical advice.”
The group has lobbied at the Statehouse for changes in state law that would strip the health secretary of the ability to require certain vaccines for school children. Another proposal would have banned the use of vaccine passports.
On Sept. 11, the group issued a “call to action” to supporters, asking them to urge legislative leaders to call a special session and ban vaccine mandates.
The group provides advice for workers whose employers require them to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
“Work to build a file/case with your employer that could be used in a discrimination or unemployment suit in the future, if needed,” the group said in an email to supporters. “The more pieces of correspondence and documents you send, the more you build that file/case.”
Workers are advised not to quit: “Make them fire you.”
The group provided email guidance to parents before this school year on how to avoid having their children receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The group provides a sample letter that parents can send to school leaders making clear that a vaccination will be considered “battery on my child.”
“Make sure you TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN about how to respond to bullying, bribery, and coercion!” the group wrote in an email. “ ‘No thank you’ is a complete sentence. They do NOT have to explain themselves — even to their friends, teacher, school nurse, or school principal!”
The group claimed in emails to legislators that improvements in water quality — not vaccines — were responsible for the rapid decline in typhoid fever, measles, scarlet fever, whopping cough and diphtheria during the 20th century.
Other emails attack the credibility of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention while misinterpreting CDC data to support claims that vaccines are not safe. The group promotes exaggerated numbers of vaccine-related deaths from unverified, self-reported claims to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. (In reviewing deaths, the CDC found “available clinical information, including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records, has not established a causal link to COVID-19 vaccines.”)
Kelly Sommers, director of the Kansas State Nurses Association, said the leaders of Kansans for Health Freedom are taking advantage of people who are at high risk of serious illness from COVID-19.
“We see that some of that messaging has caused people to not get the vaccination, with information that is not correct, and it’s not science-based or peer reviewed,” Sommers said. “We’re seeing hospitalizations, we’re seeing some deaths, and we’re seeing those with long-term effects. And that has put a stress on all of our health care system — not just hospitals. It has put a stress on the nursing profession as a whole and what it’s going to do to nursing going forward.”
Kansans for Health Freedom claimed in emails in March that children “are at virtually zero risk of dying or becoming seriously ill with COVID-19.”
Children accounted for 28.9% of reported cases of COVID-19 in the week ending Sept. 9. More than 5 million children have tested positive since the pandemic began.
More than 500 children nationwide have died from COVID-19.
“So some children dying is OK?” Hubbard, the neonatologist, said. “I don’t understand this argument, and since when did ‘virtually zero risk of dying or becoming seriously ill’ become good enough? What if it was your child? Is it not a problem unless you are personally affected? What about ‘love thy neighbor’?”
Physicians have empathy for residents who may be influenced by groups like Kansans for Health Freedom.
Kristie Clark, a pediatrician from Jetmore who serves as president of the Kansas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said parents just want to keep their kids safe. You can be an educated, highly intelligent person who wants to do the right thing and still be scared, she said.
For Clark, keeping her kids safe meant taking her teenage sons to get a COVID-19 vaccine immediately after it was approved for children ages 12 and older.
“That’s the most important thing I can tell you,” Clark said. “And I can tell you that night, my 12-year-old played in a baseball game, and he pitched, and they won. And I can tell you my 15-year-old went back to work at the mechanic shop. Neither of them had any side effects. I think of all the data I can give you, that’s the most powerful thing I can tell you.”
She said two children in her county have died from COVID-19.
“There’s less than 1,000 people in my town,” Clark said. “Those are kids that didn’t need to die.”
Connie Satzler, of the Immunize Kansas Coalition, provides the following guidance for verifying sources of information:
The mission of the Immunize Kansas Coalition is to protect all Kansans from vaccine preventable diseases. As part of our mission, we provide reliable data from verified sources and information related to vaccine efficacy and safety, to counter misinformation.
Anyone can make a claim on social media or a website. When you see a claim, check the source, the date, and the motive. Some questions to ask are, what is the source? If a health professional, are they currently licensed and what is their specialty? Is the source just looking for anything that supports their worldview, or is there an abundance of support within the medical and scientific community for their claim? Are they known for conflating facts and opinions? If an article, what is the date? Is more recent information available?
Throughout this pandemic, what we know has evolved based on the latest evidence, and recommendations are updated accordingly. Medical scientific consensus supports that vaccines are safe and highly effective, and vaccines support thriving businesses, economies, and communities. Most importantly, vaccines protect the people we love. We now have a solution to fight this pandemic, and we can all be part of it.
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