What I learned by emailing with Kansas anti-vaxxers

Ensnared by conspiracy theories and distrust of institutions, they’re eager for discussion. For better or worse, we discussed.

February 15, 2022 3:33 am

Anti-vaccine activists gathered at a Feb. 8, 2022, Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee meeting. A handful of vaccine skeptics recently emailed opinion editor Clay Wirestone with complaints about his columns. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

It turns out that calling anti-vaxxers members of a death cult and their leader a dangerous con man upsets them. 

I received a handful of outraged emails last week from hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin enthusiasts. One recommended I go on a diet and exercise program. Others asked about the sources of my information, as though you couldn’t just turn to the daily KU Medical Center briefings to learn the basics. Another wondered why the Reflector didn’t run alternative perspectives about the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 900,000 Americans and nearly 8,000 Kansans.

I responded to all of them. Not because I assumed I would change anyone’s mind, but because I care about keeping people safe and protected. To my surprise, a few wrote back for lengthy exchanges. Was I trying to convert them, or were they trying to convert me? Regardless, we connected in some small way.

After writing thousands of words, I decided to share some of my responses with you. I’m not going to use the emails I received; I’m not trying to put anyone on the spot.


Basic letter, basic response

The first message I received from an average correspondent tended to be short. The writer was upset. (One wrote to my editor asking him to discipline me for my column.) They wondered how I could possibly criticize their beliefs or state Sen. Mark Steffen, the Hutchinson Republican and anesthesiologist who admitted he is under investigation by the Kansas Board of Healing Arts for prescribing off-label drugs to COVID-19 patients.

This response is typical, although in others I would include links to the Food and Drug Administration’s warnings against taking hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin. The following emails have been lightly edited for space and clarity.

Thank you so much for reading and for taking the time to write. We appreciate hearing from all of our readers.

As a journalist, I wouldn’t be doing my job unless I tell the truth, to the best of my knowledge and ability, and held those accountable who would harm others. That can sometimes be challenging, but I do it because I want everyone to be well and healthy, and for this pandemic to recede as soon as possible.

As such, the best I can do with this email is encourage you to make sure that you and your family and friends are vaccinated – and boosted – against COVID-19. It’s the single most important thing we can do to get through this pandemic together.


Layers of complexity

As our dialogues continued, my correspondents would often send me messages packed with attachments or links. One writer suggested that COVID-19 vaccines contained the HIV virus (they don’t) and seemed angered by the thought of taking a series of inoculations. Taking just a few minutes to check the links often showed the correspondent either hadn’t read or understood them.

Thanks for taking the time to send me these links. I’m glad you care about my health.

One correction – I am not a reporter, as I’m sure you noticed reading my work. I’m the Reflector’s opinion editor, and I write commentary pieces.

Part of that job involves reading a lot of articles, and noting what they say. For instance, in looking at the links you provided, not one of them has anything to do with HIV being in the vaccines. It’s not.

Think of it this way. We have 214 million Americans who have been vaccinated. If HIV was in every one of those vaccines, and every one of those people were infected, don’t you think that would be a gigantic scandal? Don’t you think doctors across the country would be raising the alarm? And yet, neither of those things is happening.

Finally, if indeed there are 4th, 5th, 6th boosters for COVID, that would be similar to tetanus and flu vaccines. As a matter of fact, most childhood vaccines are given in series of three, four, or more shots.

(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

I’m assuming that you have kids or know people who do. And I know that you would do anything to make sure they’re healthy and protected against potentially fatal illnesses. In the same way, I would encourage you to talk to your doctor and health care team to make sure that you’re protected as well.

I also answered claims that the COVID-19 vaccines weren’t fully FDA approved. Actually, both the Pfizer and Moderna shots have crossed that line.

Someone raised alarms about information contained in the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, which tracks possible complications connected to the shots. Conspiracists have used this raw data to spin fanciful stories of vaccine side effects. I pointed out the database contains this warning: “VAERS accepts reports of adverse events following vaccination without judging the cause or seriousness of the event. VAERS is not designed to determine if a vaccine caused an adverse event, but it is good at detecting unusual or unexpected patterns of reporting that might indicate possible safety problems that need a closer look.”

I closed one reply this way:

I do hope that you continue to see your doctors. I don’t believe they’re lying to you or spreading misinformation. I think they want their patients to be well.

I care very much about data and correct information. That’s why I hope that you and all of your friends and family get fully vaccinated as soon as possible. Because the data and correct information show without any doubt that these vaccines are one of the greatest public health achievements of our lifetimes. I do not want you to get sick, and I do not want you or anyone you know to suffer. Please speak to your health care team about them. More than 900,000 Americans have died and nearly 8,000 Kansans. That’s too many for a disease that is now largely preventable.

One more thing – I received my first vaccination nearly a year ago. I’m doing fine. So are all of the members of my family and my friends and co-workers. All of us have been fully vaccinated and boosted.


Alternate perspectives

As mentioned at the beginning, one correspondent who wanted to know why the Reflector doesn’t run alternate takes about the pandemic. The exchange was polite and respectful, and I explained that I see COVID-19 as a matter of public health. I simply won’t run pieces that endanger others.

The writer then asked about the U.S. news media’s treatment of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War, when many repeated as fact since-debunked claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. I wrote this back:

I think that’s an interesting comparison. We’ve seen many changes since 2003, however. One of the biggest is the decline of mainstream media outlets, and the associated institutional pressures that came along with them. These days, a whole host of online and cable upstarts offer an incredible variety of perspectives. You can certainly watch Tucker Carlson on Fox News or turn to Facebook groups (or Substack blogs) for COVID-19 commentary that differs from scientific consensus.

However, I fundamentally don’t see COVID-19 as an ideological conflict. Yes, there are many debates about masking, the value of stay-at-home orders, the economic response, etc. I think all of those can and should be hashed out in public forums.

But another comparison comes to my mind. That’s a tornado bearing down on a community. Most people will no doubt survive the severe weather, but the news media will tell you unequivocally to take shelter. To do anything else puts people’s lives in danger. We know that not everyone will survive staying in the basement, either, but it’s safer than watching from the road. And no one has any compunctions about saying so.

So that’s my take. We know what protects people from becoming infected with COVID and what prevents them from having severe cases. It’s to be promptly and fully vaccinated. To say or print otherwise – at least in the commentary section – is to send people outside into the tornado. I would rather make sure they know about the basement. Because above being a journalist or editor, I’m a human being who wants folks to be well and healthy.


Sen. Mark Steffen has advocated a bill easing off-label COVID-19 prescriptions and widening vaccine exemptions for children. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Breach of trust

What came through loud and clear in these emails is that the folks behind them aren’t crazy or bad. They’re willing — even eager! — to have a discussion with someone who disagrees. They do, however, fundamentally distrust the institutions upon which our society depends.

We have public health officials whose sole job is to encourage people to make healthy choices. We have scientists who developed free, safe and effective vaccines. We have dedicated health care workers at doctors’ offices and hospitals across the country.

So why don’t my correspondents believe them?

On the most basic level, they’re being manipulated. Cable news provocateurs eagerly sow doubts while being vaccinated themselves. Laptops and phones surround them with a perpetual buzz of addictive outrage, far easier to understand than time-consuming education about vaccine effectiveness. But these everyday Kansans haven’t been listened to or reasoned with. They haven’t been engaged. They offer themselves up as tempting targets for a Steffen or Donald Trump, men who claim the mantle of fighting for the little guy while lining their own pockets.

I can only do so much through email. The Reflector can only do so much through its reporting and commentary. The biggest challenge ahead is for responsible local and state officials, who must rebuild trust and find ways to effectively communicate in this atomized age.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited 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, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent 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.