Sunday, March 07, 2021

Political Leaders Continue to Spread Disinformation and Advocate Policies and Take Actions Based on It

The coronavirus pandemic in the US seems past its third peak, but daily case rates have now plateaued at a level similar to the last peak.  While hospitals and health care professionals are not totally overwhelmed, they are working extremely hard and continuing to burn out.  People are still getting sick, some seriously, chronically, or fatally. With the continuing rapid spread of the virus, mutations have occurred. New viral variants may be more contagious, and possibly more deadly. While three efficacious vaccines are now available, a majority of people in the US do not have immunity to the virus.  

At least we are now hearing evidence-based guidance from federal leaders who no longer must kowtow to Donald J Trump. They have been urging patience and continued mask wearing, social (that is, physical) distancing, handwashing and other preventative measures until herd immunity is achieved through new vaccines.   Yet

Another big source of disinformation since the onset of the pandemic has been Trump's faithful followers, including politicians at national, state, and local levels in the US. We first noted the onset of disinformation about the virus propagated by Trump supporters here, including the case of Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK), who pushed the erroneous idea that the coronavirus originated in a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan. Since then we have noted many other cases in which Trump supporting US politicians have peddled disinformation about the pandemic, most recently here. However, since Trump left office,  political leaders who support the former president continue to spread disinformation, and advocate policies and take actions informed by disinformation, not by evidence-based public health.

We present the latest cases of politicians spreading disinformation, and politicians acting on or promoting policies based on such disinformation, in chronological order by the dates of relevant publications.

Spreading Disinformation

Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) Promotes Unproven Treatments for COVID

As reported by the New York Times, December 7, 2020, Sen Johnson convened a hearing of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in which he featured witnesses who pushed unproven treatments for the virus  

Mr. Johnson’s lead witness on Tuesday, Dr. Jane M. Orient, has cast doubts on coronavirus vaccines and has pushed for the use of hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug pushed by Mr. Trump, as a treatment. She helps run a group that believes government vaccine mandates violate human rights.

After numerous trials, there is no good evidence that hydroxychloroquine has benefits that outweigh its harms in the treatment or prevention of COVID-19.  The hearings also included

the Washington cardiologist Ramin Oskoui, [who] said on Fox News last month that it was 'settled science' that 'social distancing doesn’t work, quarantining doesn’t work, masks don’t work.' On the contrary, it is settled science that all three are effective in limiting the spread of the virus.

Two others promote the use of ivermectin, a drug often used to fight lice and pinworms, to treat coronavirus patients, despite the National Institutes of Health’s recommendation against its use outside clinical trials.

Dr Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, called the hearing "a powerful reminder that not even Congress is immune to toxic conspiracy theories." So much for  the "world's greatest deliberative body." (Look here

Representative Bob Good (R-VA) Says the Pandemic is "Phony"

As reported by the Washington Post, December 14, 2020:

Rep.-elect Bob Good took the stage at Freedom Plaza on Saturday afternoon and looked out at a sea of masklessness. Thousands had come to march for President Trump — some carrying signs declaring the novel coronavirus a hoax.

They were just the kind of group, Good told the crowd, who 'gets that this is a phony pandemic.'

'It’s a serious virus, but it’s a virus. It’s not a pandemic,' said Good (R), who will become Virginia’s newest congressman in the 5th Congressional District on Jan. 3. 'It’s great to see your faces. You get it. You stand up against tyranny.'

Good’s denial of the existence of a pandemic flies in the face of an unprecedented surge in coronavirus infections, which have claimed the lives of nearly 300,000 Americans — including more than 300 in Good’s congressional district, according to a Washington Post analysis of coronavirus data.

Note that the death toll is now over 500,000.

Rep Good also has advocated for actions informed by the canard that the pandemic is "phony," actions that could increase transmission of the virus during a time when more infectious, and possibly more deadly variants are spreading

'We have got to stop the insanity, and stop accepting the hoax that says forcing people to wear a mask, forcing businesses to close, prohibiting worship services, and keeping kids out of school will make a significant difference in whether or not we will die from this virus,' Good wrote on Twitter.

Rep Good has himself acted in such a way.

Good showed disdain for virus precautions throughout his campaign, opting not to wear a mask or encourage them at his events, and saying businesses should not be restricted in the interest of limited spread.

Even though members of congress can easily access world-class experts in medicine, health care, public health and epidemiology, Rep Good chose to spread dangerous nonsense about the pandemic, the sort of nonsense these experts have been dubunking since the pandemic began. 

Republican Representatives Deride Face Masks

Politico reported on January 22, 2020 that after President Biden issued an executive order requiring the wearing of face masks on US property:

'The Biden administration is already headed in the wrong direction,' Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) said on Friday. 'Continued federal overreach won’t end the Covid-19 pandemic or put food on the table.'

Not to put too fine a point on it:

A month ago, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) was chiding Biden’s mask mandate idea on Twitter. 'On day one,' he said, 'I will tell you to kiss my ass.'

How is that for dignified debate?

Vaccine Opponent, Who Said "Proper Studies" About Vaccines are Lacking, Appointed Chair of Ohio House of Representative Health Committee

As reported by the Cleveland Scene on February 8, 2021:

Rep. Scott Lipps, R-Franklin, has pushed legislation to weaken Ohio’s vaccine laws; called in to video conferences hosted by anti-vaccine groups; made public statements about the need to slow or stop the COVID-19 vaccine rollout; and alleged a lack of 'proper studies' about the COVID-19 vaccines.

House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, renamed Lipps to the top health post for the two-year legislative session that started last month. 
Results of the controlled trials of the three COVID-19 vaccines currently available under a US emergency use authorization are actually widely available, eg here. It would have taken a few minutes on a web search engine for Rep Lipps to find that out.

Multiple Republican State Lawmakers Spread Various Disinformation

Again and again, Republican Trump fans in state legislatures have pushed nonsense packaged into disinformation. 

A summary article by the Associated Press on February 28, 2021 (per ABC News here) reported numerous instances in which

in their own comments or by inviting skeptics to testify at legislative hearings, some GOP state lawmakers are using their platform to promote false information about the virus, the steps needed to limit its spread and the vaccines that will pull the nation out of the pandemic.

These included

Last week, YouTube pulled down a video of committee testimony in the Ohio House after a witness inaccurately claimed COVID-19 wasn't killing children

A House Oversight Committee meeting in Michigan

did include Jayme McElvany, a virus skeptic who also has posted about the QAnon conspiracy and former President Donald Trump's unfounded claims of election fraud. Founder of a group called Let Them Play, McElvany questioned mask mandates and the science behind state COVID-19 data during a legislative hearing that didn't feature any witnesses from the other side.  


In Tennessee, a Republican lawmaker is pushing legislation that would ban most government agencies from requiring anyone to get COVID-19 vaccines, which isn't a mandate anywhere. Rep. Bud Hulsey has tried to drum up support downplaying the seriousness of the disease.

While testifying, he ticked off selective statistics that COVID-19 has a lower death rate among children and falsely alleged that the vaccines could cause genetic modifications.

In Alaska, a state legislator called current COVID-19 vaccines 'experimental,' despite the results of large randomized controlled trials [see above].


In Idaho, Rep. Heather Scott opened the legislative session in January by declaring, 'The pandemic is over.' She said Idaho's 1,600-plus COVID-19 deaths at that time amounted to 'nowhere close to a pandemic.'


The average number of daily COVID-19 cases is falling in Idaho, but the death toll has risen.


In Virginia, Republican Del. Dave LaRock, who attended the Trump rally in Washington, D.C., that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol, warned a state House Health committee in late January that COVID-19 vaccines couldn't be trusted. He said they were especially risky for several communities, including the elderly and people of color.

At CPAC, Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) Called Lockdowns"Tyranny"

Per the Independent on February 26, 2021:

Opening the gathering’s first day in Orlando, Mr DeSantis began his speech in a triumphant mood: 'For those of you who aren’t from Florida, welcome to our oasis of freedom!'

Mr DeSantis contrasted his state with 'a country that’s suffering under the yoke of oppressive lockdowns', lamenting that in other states he sees 'schools closed, businesses shuttered, and lives destroyed.'

'And while so many governors over the last year have kept locking people down, Florida lifted people up.'


While the state’s authorities have used a fairly light touch in recent months, they were forced to impose lockdown measures in the summer of last year when cases spiked. And while Florida does have lower per capita rates of Covid-19 deaths and hospitalisations than many states which locked down hard, it also compares favourably to many states that didn’t – and it is currently seeing more cases and hospitalisation per million than Democratic-run California, where restrictions have been much tougher. At 142 deaths per million as of 26 February, the state is in the middle of the pack nationally speaking.


Utah Senator Mike Lee, ...delivered a speech bluntly stating that 'faith in government' would lead the US down the road to tyrannical rule akin to that he said was suffered under the 18th century British crown.

He then linked that idea to

a broadside against coronavirus lockdown measures – including an upbeat rant at the expense of 'sad, sad California'

Taking Actions and Advocating Policies Based on Disinformation

Republican governors and state legislators have not merely spouted disinformation.  They have acted on it. 

Iowa Republican Governor Reynolds Lifted Pandemic Restrictions with no Explanation

As reported by the Washington Post on February 10, 2021:

Last weekend, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) lifted all pandemic restrictions. There was no explanation, no warning. Nor did the governor consult with the state’s Public Health Department before removing mask mandates and limits on gatherings and indoor dining. Whatever thin protections separated Iowans from the coronavirus were just gone. The announcement came the same week that new variants of the virus were detected in the state and just one day after Iowa surpassed 5,000 deaths.

Since the governor provided no justification for her decision, she certainly did not provide any justification based on clear evidence and reasoning.

North Dakota House of Representatives Made Mask Mandates Illegal

As reported by KYFR on February 22, 2021:

By only two votes, the North Dakota House of Representatives passed a bill that would make mask mandates illegal in the future....

A small group of lawmakers said no level of government should be allowed to order the use of masks, arguing it was an infringement of freedoms.

'Our state is not a prison camp,' Rep. Jeff Hoverson, R-Minot, said.

However, opposers of the bill said while they don’t like wearing masks, they said there are times when public health and safety must take a higher priority.

 Note that states which are not prison camps mandate various articles of attire and other aspects of public behavior.  

South Dakota Republican Governor Noem Deceptively Defended Her Failure to Require Masks, Social Distancing, or Business Closures 

As reported by the Independent on March 1, 2021:

South Dakota governor Kristi Noem claimed to have successfully responded to her state’s Covid-19 pandemic, and took aim at widespread restrictions, as she addressed conservatives on Saturday.

Per the Washington Post 

Per the Washington Post on February 28, 2021, her justification was that such restrictions would have been economically disastrous, claiming.

that states who ordered Covid-related restrictions 'crushed the economy' created by Donald Trump.  

She continued: 'Everybody knows that almost overnight we went from a roaring economy to a tragic, nationwide shutdown.'


'South Dakota is the only state in America that never ordered a single business or church to close,' she said to applause and cheers. 'We never instituted a shelter-in-place order. We never mandated that people wear masks. We never even defined what an essential business is.'

However, as the Independent noted

Ms Noem, who refused any widespread mask wearing, social distancing, or business closures in South Dakota, went on to oversee more cases and deaths from Covid per capita than many states

In particular, per the Post,

South Dakota ranks second nationally for the most coronavirus cases reported per capita, eighth for total deaths per capita and ninth for peak hospitalized count per capita

While the governor provided no clear evidence of the economic success of her policy, she certainly provided no good argument that any such success was worth the resulting harms including disease and death.

Texas Republican Governor Abbott and Mississippi Republican Governor Reeves Ended Pandemic Restrictions Without Clear Justification

As reported by the Washington Post on March 3, 2021:

 On Tuesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) ended his state’s mask mandate and boasted in all-caps on Twitter that 'Texas is OPEN 100%. EVERYTHING....'

in Mississippi ...Gov. Tate Reeves (R) announced similar plans Tuesday

 In particular,

Abbott on Tuesday issued an executive order allowing Texas businesses to operate at full capacity and revoking a statewide mask mandate. The order also curtailed local officials’ ability to impose tougher restrictions in their communities, by barring countywide mask mandates and removing jail time and other penalties for those who do not follow local coronavirus rules....

In a similar move, Reeves announced Tuesday that businesses in his state would be allowed to fully reopen Wednesday and that masks would no longer be required by the state.

Gov Reeves justified his action by saying

we are not going to continue to use the heavy hand of government when it is no longer justified by the reality we see around us.

Again, as noted above, nearly all state and local governments make it illegal to walk around naked, whatever the weight of the hands required to do so.

On the other hand, the Texas Tribune reported on March 3, 2021 that:

 Abbott’s team of medical advisers appeared to play a minimal role in the decision. Three of the four said Wednesday that Abbott did not directly consult with them prior to the drastic shift in policy. The fourth said he couldn’t say whether the move was a good idea.

One such adviser expressed overt reservations about the move.


many experts said both states are still in dangerous territory. Texas had the fifth-highest number of daily deaths per capita and was ninth in daily reported cases per capita as of early Wednesday, according to a Washington Post analysis. Mississippi also ranked among the top 10 states for per capita daily deaths.

So while the governor provided no clear rationale for his actions, they clearly go against the best recommendations of local and national public health experts. 


While the coronavirus pandemic daily claims new victims, political leaders who supported Donald Trump while he was president continues to spread disinformation about the pandemic, and act and propose policies consistent with that disinformation, but hazardous to public health.  How did we get here?

A long time ago, hazy golden memories of the past suggest that politicians once hesitated to comment on issues that were perceived as being in the domain of expert professionals, like those in the medical, health care and public health realms, without the advice of scientists, or health care and health care professionals. 

During the Trump regime, things changed.  Perhaps inspired by examples from Trump himself, various political/ government leaders began to publicly say ignorant or downright stupid things about such topics. For example, in September, 2017, we noted a series of examples showing some basic ignorance of health policy, including fundamental confusion about the nature of health insurance.  In August, 2018, we noted that Trump had long been an apologist for asbestos, which is known to cause asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, claiming that those opposing use of asbestos were associated with organized crime, while more recently Trump's EPA seemed willing to relax regulation of asbestos, at a time when Russia seemed ready to become the major US supplier of it.

The COVID-19 pandemic supercharged the problem.  Although he would not acknowledge it at the time, his interviews with Bob Woodward showed that President Trump was aware of the potential severity of the COVID pandemic by February 7, 2020.  Per the Washington Post, September 9, 2020, Trump then said:

You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,... And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.

This is deadly stuff,

Nonetheless, he initially played down its severity, ostensibly to avoid "panic,"  

I wanted to always play it down,... I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.

but more likely because he feared that the pandemic could distract from his agenda and diffuse his political power.


Later, he discouraged mask wearing (look here), and promoted quick, but dubious COVID treatments, again to promote his political agenda.  Cumulatively he became a major source of pandemic disinformation (look here).

His political cronies and sycophants took up the banner of COVID disinformation (look here).  At one point, it appeared that they suffered from the Dunning-Kruger cognitive bias, that is, they were unaware of the limitations of their knowledge and ability.  However, now it looks like their actions are more cynical.  With Trump out of power they may see promoting disinformation as a way of appealing to the extreme elements of the Trump "base" by affirming what they want to believe.

For example, An analysis in the Washington Post on March 5, 2021 suggested:

The decision this week by Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas to end his state’s mask mandate and lift all restrictions on business reflects a broader move by politically ambitious Republican governors to channel the rising anger of conservative constituents over government efforts to curb the coronavirus.


the move by Abbott demonstrates how GOP governors hostile to ­pandemic restrictions are taking center stage as the party considers a post-Trump future.

The governors — responsive to a Republican electorate radicalized by the pandemic and inflamed by animus against experts and government regulations — are jockeying to present themselves as chief adversaries to President Biden.

In addition, the moves by Abbott and company may appeal to

Republican voters influenced by Internet-inspired arguments portraying opposition to public health guidelines as a cultural battle against liberal elites.

That is, some politicians may be pandering to an increasingly extreme voting bloc by telling them what they want to hear, no matter how nonsensical or bizarre it is, and regardless of the implications for their or the whole public's health.  

So, why trust politicians who suddenly proclaim themselves experts on public health and epidemiology and promote nonsensical theories and unproven solutions to the worst pandemic of the last 100 years? Would you trust a politician who suddenly proclaimed himself an expert on nuclear physics and tried to promote his personal design for a nuclear reactor?   

Finally, those of us who are health care professionals should combat politically motivated pandemic disinformation whenever we can, and call out and condemn its perpetrators.  History will not look kindly on them, but it will not look kindly on us if we stand by and do nothing when there are lives in jeopardy.