LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Lawmakers in the Kentucky House and Senate made false and misleading claims about the vaccines against COVID-19 in the first two days of the special session called to address emergency regulations related to the pandemic.
The claims, made by Republican lawmakers, drew pushback from their fellow Republicans and, at one point, left Kentucky Health Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack baffled.
“I don’t quite know how to respond to that,” Stack told Rep. Danny Bentley during a meeting of the House Health and Family Services committee. The Greenup County Republican had just suggested that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) didn’t actually approve Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.
In fact, the FDA granted full approval to the vaccine last month. Stack reiterated that Tuesday. “Pfizer-BioNtech is now fully approved for persons 16 and older,” he said. “Not authorized, fully approved under the normal approval process.”
In the weeks since that approval, a conspiracy theory has emerged alleging that the vaccine the FDA approved is different from the one Pfizer has been distributing for months under emergency use authorization (EUA). Bentley said the FDA pulled a “bait and switch.” But as the agency has stated, the vaccine that millions of Americans took under the EUA is the same as the vaccine that is now approved.
Before Bentley’s comments, Rep. Nancy Tate, R-Brandenburg, shared another unverified claim about the COVID-19 vaccines.
“There’s been as many as 7,000 deaths from the vaccinations and tens of thousands of hospitalizations,” she said. “So when we talk about the benefits, I would like for there to also be [talk of] the risks.”
Tate said the 7,000 number came from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), which is maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Her colleague, Rep. Ryan Dotson, R-Winchester, later supported her claim.
“I’d just like to concur with Rep. Tate on her comment about the VAERS,” he said. “That is legitimate and accurate information.”
Bentley, a pharmacist, also vouched for VAERS. “I’ve been a vaccinator for many years. VAERS is very accurate. We have to report it all the time. So that’s a good source to go to.”
However, as the Department of Health and Human Services notes on the database’s website, “The report of an adverse event to VAERS is not documentation that a vaccine caused the event.”
VAERS is designed as an early warning system to track possible side effects from a vaccine. Anyone can submit a report to the website and anyone can access the data that’s been collected. During the pandemic, anti-vaccine activists have used VAERS to sow fear and raise doubts about the COVID-19 vaccines by suggesting that any death that happened after vaccination was caused by the vaccination.
These are points that another member of the committee made after hearing his colleagues speak. Like Bentley, Dotson and Tate, Rep. Steve Sheldon is a Republican. And like Bentley, he is a pharmacist.
“I’ve heard VAERS mentioned, but we’re not mentioning that VAERS is a totally unverified database,” Sheldon said. “People can access VAERS by getting online and anybody can put information into it.”
He also cited statistics that show more than 90% of Kentuckians hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated. “My biggest concern coming into these meetings is that some of the misinformation we talk about out in the public sometimes finds its way into these committees,” he added.
A similar scene played out Tuesday in the Senate, with one Republican lawmaker correcting another over misleading claims about the vaccines.
Sen. Adrienne Southworth, R-Lawrenceburg, suggested that the vaccines are not working because the recent surge in cases is taking place even as more than 2.5 million Kentuckians have been vaccinated.
“The solutions of masks and vaccines and those are the only solutions we’ve heard now for a year and look where we are, worse than we’ve been ever,” she said.
The current surge in cases is because the delta variant is more contagious than previous variants and, in some cases, spread by vaccinated people.
But as Sen. Chris McDaniel, one of Southworth's Republican colleagues from Taylor Mill, pointed out after her comments, many more unvaccinated people are sick. “The numbers don’t lie,” he said, after citing statistics from two Kentucky hospitals showing that the vast majority of patients are unvaccinated. “The vaccine works and we need to take it.”
Editor's Note: Adam K. Raymond is married to Kentucky Representative Josie Raymond who represents District 31 which covers portions of Jefferson County.