For nearly two weeks, anti-vaccine organizations and online conspiracy theorists of all kinds have tried extremely hard to claim that Governor Gavin Newsom of California suffered an adverse reaction to the Moderna booster shot he received in late October. They were aided by the fact that soon after receiving his shot, Newsom canceled plans to attend a climate summit in Scotland, citing unspecified family obligations. In a bit of an object lesson for how these things go, the governor’s office has only belatedly and partially responded to baseless speculation that he was actually dealing with a vaccine injury, allowing theories about his absence from the public eye to run truly—and usefully, for the people promoting them—wild.
Newsom received his shot on Wednesday, October 27; soon after, as the Associated Press reported on Saturday, he raised eyebrows by canceling a long-planned November 1 trip to Scotland to participate in a United Nations climate summit. Newsom’s office sent a press release October 29 saying he was dealing with family obligations, but provided no further information, and he wasn’t seen at any press conferences or public events for the remainder of the week, which is unusual for him. According to Vogue, Newsom did make a public appearance of sorts this past weekend, at the wedding of oil heiress Ivy Getty. Also over the weekend, Newsom’s wife Jennifer Siebel Newsom tweeted and quickly deleted a jab at his critics, which read, “It’s funny how certain folks can’t handle truth. When someone cancels something, maybe they’re just in the office working; maybe in their free time they’re at home with their family, at their kids’ sports matches, or dining out with their wife. Please stop hating and get a life.”
After publication, Newsom’s office told Motherboard in an email, “No, the Governor did not have any adverse reaction to his booster shot.” They added, in a statement attributed to press secretary Daniel Lopez, “Last week Governor Newsom worked in the Capitol with staff on urgent issues including COVID-19 vaccines for kids, boosters, ports, the forthcoming state budget and California’s continued economic recovery. He will have public events this week related to the economy and vaccines.”
His office released a video of him wishing a happy Diwali and Bandi Chhor Divas to his constituents on November 4, but it wasn’t until November 8 that Lopez, his press secretary, told the Mercury News “No events were canceled as a result of his booster shot.”
All of this was just enough for two, occasionally overlapping groups of people: Calfornia Republicans and COVID conspiracy theorists.
Republican officials—along with transparency advocates of all sorts—pointed out, fairly, that it’s actually good to know where the governor of a large state is. State Senator Melissa Melendez, a Republican and frequent Newsom critic, tweeted, “Governor Newsom has repeatedly assured [sic] that vaccines are safe. Given the rumors swirling around about the timing of his disappearance (right after getting the booster), I hope he emerges soon to explain his absence, and I hope that’s he’s healthy.” (Charges of hypocrisy are particularly charged for Newsom, who previously faced criticism for attending a now-infamous dinner with medical lobbyists at the French Laundry in November 2020. Photos of the event appeared to show that the event was indoors and that no one was wearing masks or social distancing, at a time when the Governor’s office was urging everyone to follow those protocols. Newsom’s office insisted the event had been outside.)
Meanwhile, the less-genteel anti-vaccine crowd saw an opening. Steve Kirsch, a tech millionaire who’s become well-known during the pandemic for promoting COVID misinformation, speculated on Twitter and on his personal blog that Newsom was experiencing Bell’s Palsy, a facial paralysis that may—emphasis on may—be a vanishingly rare side effect of receiving a COVID vaccine. (A study published in The Lancet in August found a very small increased risk of Bell’s Palsy among people who’d been vaccinated in Hong Kong, but emphasized that the benefits of the shot still far outweighed those minimal risks.) Kirsch claimed that by the time Newsom appeared in public again, he “could look totally normal,” which certainly left a convenient loophole. Pizzagate promoter, friend to the alt-right, and all-purpose conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec, meanwhile, tweeted “#wheresgavin,” a hashtag that quickly became full of speculation that the Governor was dead.
This came to an exhausting head Monday, when Children’s Health Defense, Robert F. Kennedy’s massive anti-vaccine organization, published a blog post claiming that an unspecified source “close to the Governor” had told them that Newsom’s symptoms “were similar to those associated with Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS).” The post was not bylined and there is no particular reason to believe a single thing Children’s Health Defense has to say. A constellation of vaccine “skeptics” including Christiane Northrup, a former OB-GYN turned COVID conspiracy theorist and Larry Cook, a well-known anti-vax campaigner who used to run the largest anti-vaccine Facebook page in the country, nevertheless quickly shared the post.
As a clear—if perhaps overly subtle—proof of life, Newsom’s office announced that he would appear at an economic forum in Monterey on Tuesday, which organizers said would be broadcast via livestream. According to journalist Ashley Zavala, Newsom won’t be taking questions after the event.
This article has been updated with comment from Governor Gavin Newsom’s office.