Reality and conspiracy collide at Lawrence COVID-19 vaccine clinic for kids

November 16, 2021 3:33 am

Stickers and buttons were laid out at the COVID-19 vaccination clinic at West Middle School in Lawrence on Saturday, Nov. 13. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Saturday should have been a banner day for my family.

I brought my 10-year-old son to West Middle School in Lawrence, where he received his first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. The school gymnasium was quiet but cheery, with parents and children waiting patiently after the shots. A magician performed, and one table offered stickers, buttons, T-shirts and treats.

Outside the school, however, was a different story. There, according to reporting from Mackenzie Clark of the Lawrence Times, “a man who has become well-known in Lawrence for his protests of mask mandates was arrested Saturday morning for allegedly threatening people with a sign post as they attempted to enter a vaccine clinic for kids.”

Thankfully, my son and I left shortly before the arrest.

On that tranquil November day, an increasingly radical fringe movement clashed with reality. I wish I could say that reality is winning easily.


The reality

The basic facts of our shared situation haven’t changed. COVID-19 is a potentially deadly virus, and it poses a particular threat to older adults and those with pre-existing conditions. Most of those infected will experience a mild case, but without proper distancing and safety precautions, they put others at risk.

Opinion editor Clay Wirestone’s 10-year-old son receives his first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Saturday, Nov. 13. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Near-miraculous vaccines, created in record time, all but eliminate the risk of death and substantially reduce illness and transmission. If you want to end the pandemic, the single best thing you can do is get vaccinated and make sure your family and friends are as well. The vaccines are free and widely available.

For parents like me, these facts had posed a challenge for much of 2021. Sure, my husband and I were vaccinated. So were my siblings and father. Without our 10-year-old being inoculated, however, the virus still threatened.

The CDC’s approval of vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds changed all that. Finally.

After 20 months of remote learning, hybrid school and tentative face-to-face instruction, children’s vaccinations are a vital piece of restoring safety and security to our school system. They’re a vital piece of restoring equilibrium for families across Kansas. I was proud to bring my son to the vaccine site, and he put up with my pride, complaining only of a sore arm for a couple of hours afterward.


The fantasy

That’s not remotely how the people who packed hearing rooms at the Kansas Statehouse see the pandemic, however. That’s not how protesters who picketed the Lawrence school district offices and an elementary school see it.

To this over-passionate clique, vaccines and attempts to control the virus are proof of a worldwide plot against freedom. Pharmaceutical companies and public health officials, politicians and neighborhood school teachers, all are collaborating in an attempt to overthrow our country.

How do they imagine a children’s vaccine clinic?

Do they suppose everyone bows to gargantuan portraits of Bill Gates on one wall and Anthony Fauci on the other? Do they believe tiny microchips swirl around each bottle of vaccine? Do they assume children are screaming and crying as heartless adults held them down, forcing poison in their veins? As we drive home, do they figure we play the Chinese national anthem over our car speakers?

That sounds ridiculous. But we saw in recent weeks that frenzied Kansans were willing to repeat outlandish lies in front of lawmakers sitting on the Special Committee on Government Overreach and the Impact of COVID-19 Mandates. The vaccines, they said, were made from baby livers. Somehow Pfizer’s Comirnaty vaccine (its name after formal FDA approval) isn’t the same as the Pfizer vaccine we’ve been receiving for months. The vaccine causes a bizarre array of health problems that officials aren’t telling you about.

Not one of these beliefs is true. Not one of the other preposterous lies uttered at the meetings is true either.


The problem

Every one of us faces a challenge here: false equivalence.

There appear to be two sides of the discussion. Agitated anti-vaxxers have faced off against responsible folks who want to protect themselves and their families. Journalists and the public understand the concept of two sides and how they compete for public support. That’s how we’ve engaged in politics for decades. We treat both sides in a debate as rational actors.

Yet there aren’t two rational sides to this situation.

There is reality, and there is fantasy.

Anti-vaxxers support a self-destructive goal. The more people believe their conspiracies, the more COVID-19 will spread. The more people will die of a preventable disease. The pandemic will grind on for months or years longer. That’s hardly a rational method of building political power. Anger and fear always attract adherents, though, especially after nearly two years of societal disruption.

Extremism tainted my family’s banner day. It may cast an ever-lengthening shadow over Kansas politics. But reality won’t be denied.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.