Kamala Harris’ COVID Announcement Sets Off Another Wave of Anti-Vax Disinformation

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WASHINGTON – Vice President Kamala Harris’ announcement this week that she is not experiencing COVID symptoms despite having tested positive has nevertheless triggered another round of misinformation from vaccine opponents and COVID deniers — even as a new study shows that nearly a quarter-million Americans have died because they chose not to be vaccinated.

Harris became the latest example of high-profile coronavirus cases in people who have received the vaccines and, in recent months, at least one booster shot as well. Dozens of attendees at the Gridiron Club dinner in Washington last month, including Attorney General Merrick Garland and members of Congress, tested positive.

Yet the overwhelming majority of those cases produced at most mild symptoms and did not lead to hospitalization, let alone death. Meaning that two years after then-President Donald Trump falsely claimed that COVID was no worse than the common cold, the disease today truly typically is no worse than a cold — for those who are vaccinated and boosted.

“The key message is that the vaccine helps a lot and even if you end up getting sick, the vaccine makes it less likely that you are going to have a bad outcome,” said Tara Kirk Sell, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies misinformation surrounding public health crises.

The White House, though, after taking what turned out to be a premature victory lap over the pandemic last summer only to be hit by new variants, has responded cautiously — even defensively — to news of positive tests.

The first response from Ashish Jha, the new COVID response coordinator, to a question about Harris’ infection was not to showcase her lack of symptoms as a success story, but to explain that the vaccine could not be expected to eliminate all cases entirely.

“We have a very, very contagious variant out there,” Jha told reporters hours after Harris disclosed her positive test. “It is going to be hard to ensure that no one gets COVID in America. That’s not even a policy goal.”

Jennifer Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at Kaiser Family Foundation, said she appreciates the difficulty of crafting the right tone.

“He’s a good messenger. But public health messaging is hard,” she said of Jha. “The White House has to figure out a way to communicate about the power of vaccines. ... Clear messages about what these vaccines do and don’t do. That’s what’s been needed from the beginning and that’s what’s needed now.”

White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha listens to a question at a daily press conference at the White House on April 26. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker via Getty Images)
White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha listens to a question at a daily press conference at the White House on April 26. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker via Getty Images)

White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha listens to a question at a daily press conference at the White House on April 26. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker via Getty Images)

In the meantime, Harris’ announcement provided yet another field day for COVID deniers and vaccine opponents.

Tim Swain, a state House member in South Carolina challenging Republican Sen. Tim Scott in the primary, responded within minutes of the announcement with: “Another ‘vaccine’ success story!!”

Popular conservative radio talk show host Clay Travis posted on Twitter: “Kamala Harris, who has gotten four covid shots so far, just tested positive for covid. She will be fine. Just like she would have been if she’d never gotten the four COVID shots in the first place.”

The online opinions editor at the Washington Times posted a column asking: “So, not to be rude or anything, but what’s the point of getting the shot?”

And possibly the single biggest source of disinformation in the country did an entire segment disparaging the vaccines on his evening Fox News television show.

“Kamala Harris has guess which disease? Oh, COVID,” Tucker Carlson said Tuesday on his program, the highest-rated on cable television. “And you know what that means? It means the vaccines work perfectly because when you get the vaccine, you get COVID, because that’s what they were intended to do.”

Americans who have bought into that attitude have paid a severe price, ranging from serious symptoms and hospital stays to death. A recent analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that from the time that vaccines became readily available to everyone in June 2021 through March 2022, 234,000 Americans who could have received the vaccine but chose not to ended up dying from the disease.

Kates, a co-author of that analysis which also found that unvaccinated Americans today make up only 22% of the total but account for 60% of all the deaths, said the evidence could not be more clear. Unvaccinated people are nine times more likely to die from COVID than people who have taken the vaccine, and 20 times more likely to die than people who have also received at least one booster.

“Without a doubt, it’s much, much better to be vaccinated, and especially vaccinated and boosted, than not,” Kates said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended the Biden administration’s messaging, pointing out that they have consistently advocated getting the vaccine and, when eligible, the booster shots, as well.

“Because it can put you in a position where even if you get COVID, you’re able to … experience minimal symptoms or no symptoms, like the vice president has been, and to continue to go about daily life the best you can while you’re quarantining,” Psaki told reporters Wednesday.

Kates said a big part of the administration’s challenge is to get skeptical Americans to understand that vaccines, even for childhood diseases, have never been expected to completely ward off infection, but rather to prevent serious illness. “It’s a real problem,” she said. “The average person doesn’t know that.”

“It’s too bad that some people seem to expect a vaccine to be perfect to feel like it is worthwhile,” Johns Hopkins’ Sell added. “There are other situations where people don’t think this way. If you knew you were going someplace where bullets were flying, you’d want a Kevlar vest. It might not protect you completely, but certainly gives you a lot better odds.”

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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