They’ve resisted the stay-at-home order, denounced contact tracing as government control and disregarded a statewide mask mandate.
At every stage of the pandemic, California’s anti-vaccine activists have foreshadowed what their fight against a future vaccine to prevent COVID-19 could look like.
“If we can’t win the mandatory mask argument, we won’t win the mandatory COVID-19 vaccination argument,” Larry Cook, founder of the Los Angeles-based group Stop Mandatory Vaccination, wrote in a June 21 tweet. “They are 100% connected.”
Members of Freedom Angels, another prominent California coalition that organized protests at the Capitol against vaccine legislation last year and against the stay-at-home directive this year, have called Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mask order “tyranny” and warned their followers not to comply with the requirement.
“No masks. No vaccines. No taking my freedom. No new normal,” the coalition included in a June 18 Facebook post.
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Race to a coronavirus vaccine
Though it can take years of trials and studies, regulatory reviews and manufacturing processes before a vaccine can be safely administered to humans, President Donald Trump has called for a streamlined process to develop a coronavirus vaccine through an initiative called “Operation Warp Speed.” He wants 300 million doses of a COVID-19 shot ready to go by the start of 2021.
“President Trump has refused to accept business-as-usual timelines for vaccines and other essential tools,” Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement announcing Trump’s plan, “and instead has insisted that America, and the world, needs answers faster. Under the President’s leadership, his administration and American industry will squeeze every last inefficiency out of the process and pour every resource we can into this effort.”
More than 125 vaccines are in a pre-clinical testing phase, according to a New York Times coronavirus vaccine tracker. Another 10 have been administered to small groups of people, while another eight are in expanded trials. Only three are being tested in large-scale trials.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert who has helped navigate the United States through the pandemic, said this week that he thinks it might be possible to achieve that aggressive timeline without compromising the rigorous safety protocol critical to vaccine testing.
“We feel cautiously optimistic, based on the concerted effort and the fact we are taking financial risks — not risks to safety, not risks to the integrity of the science, but financial risk to be able to be ahead of the game — so that when, and I believe it will be when and not if, we get favorable candidates with good results, we will be able to make them available to the American public,” Fauci said during a Tuesday House Energy and Commerce Committee meeting.
That urgency has already handed anti-vaccine communities an opportunity to discredit the future treatment as a rushed and therefore unsafe vaccine.
“I’m already hearing some states talking about pushing a vaccine mandate for the coronavirus, even though it hasn’t been developed yet,” said V is for Vaccine leader Joshua Coleman.
Coleman’s group coordinated a rally at the Capitol Tuesday for “ex-vaxxers,” or people who no longer vaccinate their kids, to protest what they consider censorship of their perspectives. Registration for the event cost participants $42.
“I’m worried that (the coronavirus) issue is going to be used as an excuse,” Coleman continued, “that the ‘antivax community’ is being careless and it’s time to censor them completely and remove them from social media platforms.”
Coleman said speakers included Judy Mikovits, the discredited research scientist behind a coronavirus conspiracy video called “Plandemic” that went viral last month. The video was then removed from social media sites like Facebook and YouTube.
Mikovits, who Coleman said he believes is “telling the truth,” has claimed for years that top doctors silence anyone who disagrees with mainstream medical perspectives, which include advocacy for vaccines or taking precautions to slow the coronavirus.
State Senators Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, and Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga, also spoke at the event and were honored for voting last year against Senate Bill 276, a vaccine crackdown law that Democrats approved and Newsom signed.
“Senator Grove received an award for her advocacy against the Legislature’s proposal to take medically-fragile children’s personal health decisions away from parents and place them in the hands of bureaucrats,” Jacqui Nguyen, Grove’s press secretary, said in a statement.
The protests and social media posts haven’t necessarily surprised Leah Russin, founder of pro-vaccine and parental advocacy group Vaccinate California, but they have worried her.
Russin has worked for years against California’s anti-vaccine lobby to get immunization laws written by state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, passed at the Capitol. Senate Bill 277 four years ago eliminated personal beliefs from the list of reasons school kids can skip their shots. SB 276 last year increased oversight of doctors who issue high numbers of medical exemptions for students.
Russin said since March, she’s watched the “political manipulation” of public health guidelines that are recommended to slow the spread of a virus that’s sickened more than 195,000 Californians and left 5,733 dead.
“There are obvious, concerning conspiracy theories that are sadly gaining traction that are not helpful,” Russin said, pointing to those circulating around billionaire Bill Gates, who’s helped raise billions to fund a vaccine.
It doesn’t help, she said, that the federal government was slow to respond to the pandemic and leading public health organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention originally advised against widespread mask wearing.
That left people wondering who to trust and what actions they should be taking, if any, to avoid the virus. The confusion exacerbated an increasingly “fragile relationship between the public and public health officials,” Russin said, and handed opportunity for anti-vaccine organizations to spread misinformation.
Knowing there’s already a campaign brewing to discredit a coronavirus vaccine, it will be incumbent upon public health and elected officials to demand a shot that’s thoroughly evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, Pan said.
Pan also explained it’s important to continue amplifying the good vaccines have done for public health and the level of testing they endure before they’re approved.
“One of the things that the coronavirus should be teaching us is that we have been fortunate for around 100 years, between vaccines and antibiotics, we haven’t really had to worry about infectious diseases as much,” Pan said. “It’s very important to talk about what the benefits of the (coronavirus) vaccine will be, including people going about freely in their community safely again.”
Most Americans support vaccines. Seventy-three percent of Californians surveyed in a September Public Policy Institute poll supported mandatory vaccinations for children to prevent diseases like measles, mumps and rubella.
But the World Health Organization listed vaccine hesitancy, or what it called “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines,” as one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019. Support for vaccinations in the United States dropped from 94 percent in 2001 to 84 percent last year, according to a December Gallup survey.
Richard Carpiano, a UC Riverside public policy and sociology professor, said the coronavirus has created a perfect storm of mass confusion online to deepen skepticism of vaccines and other public health mandates.
While state agencies are trying to grapple with an evolving health emergency and update the public in real time, Carpiano said, anti-vaccine and anti-government groups are spreading false information online against those efforts.
“It creates this ecosystem of competing messages,” Carpiano said. “It’s the same ecosystem that is going to create problems if and when a vaccine develops.”
Carpiano said the coronavirus vaccine will create a “social science problem,” and its solution depends not only on a strategy at the federal level, but a consistent message that immunizations are safe and effective at the state and local levels.
Government leaders will then have to invest money in vaccine campaigns and work on building trust not only among vaccine-hesitant families, but communities of color that often distrust medical professionals at a higher rate.
“I’ve been saying this for a while,” Carpiano said. “It’s not too soon, and it should be getting discussed right now.”