South Carolina State Representative Bill Chumley was feeling vindicated. His many suspicions about COVID-19 vaccines, he told VICE News, appeared to have been justified.
“I called my doctor early this morning,” Chumley said, after the news broke that the FDA has paused use of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine over reports of six patients developing rare and serious blood clots two weeks after getting the vaccine. “His comment was that he’s more convinced than ever.”
So is Chumley. That’s why, on March 2, he was one of the sponsors of South Carolina’s “Vaccine Bill of Rights,” a resolution stuffed with misinformation and conspiratorial language based on model legislation from a medical fringe group that’s become notorious in recent months.
Legislators in at least five states, VICE News has found, have introduced a so-called “Vaccine Bill of Rights.” The text of these bills is strikingly similar for a reason: They’re all based on a document released in January by a group called America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLD), a pseudo-medical collection of physicians and not-at-all-physicians devoted to spreading the worst possible information about COVID. Resolutions using language similar or identical to the group's have been proposed by Republican lawmakers in Wyoming (as first reported by the Powell Tribune), Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, and South Carolina, according to a review conducted by VICE News.
These resolutions are also feeding into the recent debate around "vaccine passports," a still-theoretical construct related to the idea that the country should develop a standardized way for people to prove they’ve been vaccinated against the novel coronavirus. Republican lawmakers are treating it as a clear and present danger; some, like Marjorie Taylor Greene, have used baldly conspiratorial langage comparing vaccine passports to the Biblical Mark of the Beast. In several proposed “Bill of Rights” resolutions, there’s language that explicitly seeks to bar vaccine passports, saying that “such required documentation pose[s] substantial risks to personal privacy and equal treatment before the law for all citizens.”
The text of many of these proposed pieces of legislation also says that employers should be prohibited from mandating vaccines for any of their employees, making no exception for those who work in a hospital setting; that employers should be forbidden from asking doctors and nurses to “promote” the COVID-19 vaccine; and that school districts should be forbidden from mandating vaccines as a condition of returning to in-person instruction without massive exemptions that would shred them into Swiss cheese. Some of them also make much darker claims about COVID vaccines, calling them “experimental” and implying that it would be a violation of the Nuremberg laws to require anyone to take them.
Chumley, one of the co-sponsors of the South Carolina version of the legislation, is skeptical of all three COVID vaccines currently being administered in the United States, which are believed to be overwhelmingly safe and effective by public health authorities nationally; by the European Medicines Agency, Europe’s largest public health body; and by the World Health Organization. Chumley is also dubious about the well-established fact that wearing masks prevents the spread of coronavirus. He doesn’t wear one personally, he told VICE News, although, he said, “I do if someone asks me to, if I’m in an area where someone is not comfortable.”
His doctors are critical of vaccines too, he said—both his personal family physician and two other doctors who work on a committee that advises him on medical affairs. Chumley said he believes his doctor belongs to the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, a controversial group that’s been skeptical of vaccines for years. “All three of them are in total agreement on the dangers of the vaccine,” he said. He is determined to make sure that no one is forced to take a vaccine in the state of South Carolina.
“To me it’s a freedom issue,” he said. “When is the last time that you’ve seen everybody being—I don’t want to say coerced or forced—encouraged to take a vaccine? It’s not—my problem with it is the FDA hasn’t recognized it and the manufacturers are not liable. There haven’t been a lot of tests made. All that being said, my point and my reason for doing this is a freedom issue. People ought to be able to do their own research without being penalized.” (The FDA granted an Emergency Use Authorization for all three vaccines, and vaccine manufacturers can be sued in a federal no-fault court system, a system anti-vaccine groups have spent years lobbying against.)
“To me, it’s a freedom issue.”
Chumley and the other state legislators promoting Vaccine Bills of Rights are just one piece in a large mosaic of vaccine paranoia that is playing out on the state level. In a separate but spiritually similar bill, 16 House Republicans in the Ohio Legislature are seeking to ban “discrimination,” as they called it, against unvaccinated people. And many of these lawmakers aren’t doing it on their own: During the pandemic and the rollout of the COVID vaccines, anti-vaccine activists have made other sorts of alarming progress in their project of bending state politics to their will.
Major anti-vaccine figures like Del Bigtree, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Judy Mikovits—the star of the conspiracy-addled purported documentary Plandemic—have spent the pandemic speaking to state legislators and local groups, trying their hardest to remake the country’s COVID policies to their liking by peddling fear and pseudoscience in equal measure. (Mikovits even claimed that while flying from one event to another, she was arrested for refusing to wear what she called a “toxic paper mask,” and promised to sue the airline involved.)
More and more, these activists are finding willing lawmakers to join them on what they believe are the front lines. Some of them, like Chumley, say they don’t work with organized anti-vaccine groups; others attend their meetings and take their talking points from those groups in more direct ways.
For his part, Chumley said there are four bills in the South Carolina General Assembly, all taking aim at COVID vaccines in different ways. “We have four bills and resolutions on this and they’re all going in different directions,” he said. How they turn out, he added, “remains to be seen.”
America’s Frontline Doctors first garnered public attention when Dr. Stella Immanuel gave a resoundingly bizarre and irresponsible speech at one of its first public press conferences. Immanuel, a Texas physician and pastor, claimed that no one needs to use a face mask and instead promoted hydroxychloroquine, a debunked COVID cure also promoted by Donald Trump; the Daily Beast later reported that Immanuel had a history of claiming that other medical issues were caused by, variously, demon sperm and alien DNA. (“Demons are sleeping with people,” she insisted, in a followup interview with NBC’s Houston affiliate KRPC.)
Meanwhile, AFLD’s founder, Dr. Simone Gold, was arrested after a video showed her entering the Capitol during the insurrection on January 6, and faces charges of entering a restricted building, violent entry and disorderly conduct. In a speech outside the White House early that day, she referred to the COVID vaccine as “an experimental biological agent deceptively named a vaccine,” the Intercept reported. The Intercept also reported that in an address at a COVID-denialist church in Tampa Bay, Florida early in January, she told the audience, “Always use the word ‘experiment’ when you talk about this. Always. The socialists win the language wars.” (America’s Frontline Doctors didn’t respond to a request for comment from VICE News prior to publication.)
None of the legislation based on AFLD's Bill of Rights has passed so far, and resolutions wouldn’t necessarily be legally binding. It’s also—to put it lightly—unclear how any of these bills square with Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that affirmed that states can require residents to be vaccinated, which quite clearly means that public employers can make a vaccine mandatory for their employees. And private employers likely can too: The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission confirmed in December that requiring a mandatory vaccine isn’t a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, though there still may be other reasons to give exemptions, including for religious beliefs or due to medical issues.
All this aside, the text of the model legislation written by AFLD is a clear expression of what anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine groups—and their allies in state politics—are promoting, successfully, to the public. It implies that the coronavirus is a far lesser threat than government overreach, and that “dangerous” or “rushed” vaccines against COVID are soon to be forced into the unwilling arms of the public—a prediction the anti-vaccine movement has been falsely making for years about other vaccines. It also strongly suggests that the people are, as the text puts it, in danger of being “mandated, coerced, forced or pressured” to get vaccinated.
It implies that the coronavirus is a far lesser threat than government overreach, and that “dangerous” or “rushed” vaccines against COVID are soon to be forced into the unwilling arms of the public—a prediction the anti-vaccine movement has been falsely making for years about other vaccines.
On a more granular level, AFLD’s model legislation also makes a number of other bizarre and misleading claims. It states that “no COVID vaccine is FDA-approved but some are authorized under a temporary Emergency Use Authorization as experimental (investigational) agents only.” While true, this would suggest to a layperson that the vaccines being given to the public don’t have a track record of safety; in fact, EUAs are weighed carefully before being granted in emergency situations. Respected independent public health bodies like Johns Hopkins have said they’re confident the current vaccines have “a very good safety profile” and that no safety steps were skipped before they were made available to the public. (The EUA, as an aside, also means that even the Pentagon cannot make the COVID vaccines mandatory. In at least one branch of the military, vaccine hesitancy seems high: A recent CNN report found that more than 40% of U.S. Marines have declined the shot.)
AFLD's proposed Bill of Rights also claims that it is “neither feasible nor safe to administer experimental vaccines to many groups of patients, such as persons with post-natural infections, waning titers, allergic reactions, as well as childbearing women, etc.”—a statement stuffed with misinformation. Having had a “natural infection” (having, in other words, gotten COVID before) doesn’t make it unsafe to get vaccinated, nor does being a “childbearing woman.” Neither does having “waning titers,” something that’s put in the model bill text with zero explanation, and which made it into the South Carolina version verbatim. (After vaccination, as after a COVID infection, the body produces an antibody response; scientists are still studying how quickly neutralizing antibody titers, which means the amount of antibody concentrated in the blood, fade in people who had severe versus mild COVID cases. Any reasonable person would conclude that “waning titers” would be a good reason to get a vaccination, not one to avoid it, but that’s not the realm this text inhabits.)
The text of the Bill of Rights is, on top of all of this, focused on making sure people don’t have to show proof of vaccination to enter large gatherings like stadium sports events or concerts. One clause reads “out of state vendors including Ticketmaster, cannot require venue operators and organizers to mandate proof of vaccination from concertgoers and other paying customers before freely entering a venue on private or public property.” In other words, the goal is to make sure that those mounting large events—one of the riskiest possible things to do during a pandemic—should be able to proceed without organizers being able to ask that attendees be vaccinated first.
While AFLD’s seemingly sudden influence on state politics is deeply odd, an alliance between fringe groups and state-level politicians has been a long time in the making. And some of these legislators haven’t been shy about making their suspicions known, loudly.
“How do we really know what is in these vaccines?” Ohio State Rep. Nino Vitale asked on the platform in September. “Do you trust the government and big pharma to have your best interest in mind, or is this a scheme to line their pockets with money, or worse, create serious health problems or death?”
In a months-long blizzard of conspiratorial posts and homemade memes, Vitale—a member, despite his anti-government rhetoric, of the Ohio House since 2015—has made it clear that he believes, wrongly, that vaccines are dangerous. The pandemic has weighed heavily on him, continually bringing him to new heights of disgust and outrage over the basic public health measures his fellow elected officials have enacted. On the Fourth of July, he wrote disgustedly that people who refused to wear masks were subjected to social disapproval. “The hatred unleashed on our fellow citizens for what someone ‘thinks’ someone else should wear on their face is astounding,” he thundered. “The real disease is the sickness in the social fabric of our society.” In April of last year, talking to one of Ohio’s two anti-vaccine groups, he also theorized that Bill Gates had either created COVID-19 or was “in on it,” adding, not very convincingly, “I hope no one’s that evil.” In his Independence Day post, he also warned, darkly, that soon “forced” vaccinations would be upon us.
Vitale isn’t alone in promoting conspiratorial talking points at work and online. His fellow Ohio State Representative Diane Grendell claimed in a state Senate committee hearing that the data coming out of Ohio’s health department regarding COVID-19 infections “has been corrupted,” claiming she’d learned the dastardly fact from sources she refused to disclose. In April, as Ohio experienced another surge in infection rates driven in part by new variants of COVID-19 circulating in the state, Grendell was on Facebook linking to an article from the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation casting doubt on the efficacy of mask mandates. “Some interesting reading,” she wrote. Grendell previously praised the Amish in Ohio for not wearing masks, saying in a public hearing, “The Amish in our community … they don’t wear masks,” she continued. “They refuse to because they believe in God, they have that faith in God. Initially, I think seven Amish died. And many of them were older and they have … other problems. But now they don’t have it anymore. They’ve culled the herd, so to speak.” (Amish communities across the U.S. have been impacted by COVID-19, as well as medical misinformation about the pandemic. Mask-wearing is not uniform among Amish communities, but it is true some are hesitant to do so.)
In Minnesota, the so-called “Vaccine Safety Council of Minnesota,” a group uniformly critical of vaccines, announced that the “Bill of Rights” would be introduced before it was, indicating they’d heard from the lawmaker who sponsored it. That lawmaker, Republican Representative Glenn Gruenhagen, shared an article on Facebook in June from the ultra-conservative Liberty Counsel claiming that COVID vaccines in trial at the time were using “aborted baby cell lines,” suggested that Bill Gates “wants to reduce the world’s population by 15%,” and that that fact was somehow connected to his funding of vaccine research, and claimed that the vaccines also carried “the added health risk of injecting a foreign DNA into your body.” (Fetal cell lines were used in COVID vaccine research, but none of the vaccines contain fetal cells. Gates’ commentary on slowing population growth worldwide has been twisted by vaccine opponents into a false claim that he was saying vaccines need to be used to kill people. Vaccines will not alter your DNA.)
Vitale, Grendell, Gruenhagen and other newly passionate anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown politicians aren’t coming to this risible rhetoric all on their own. They’ve been goaded along by anti-vaccine groups, which are more focused than ever on wooing state politicians and local groups. There are extremely clear signs it’s working, particularly in Ohio: State Representative Scott Lipps, the chair of the state’s House Health Committee, met with the anti-vaccine group Health Freedom Ohio in April, telling them he’d need their help.
Newly passionate anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown politicians aren’t coming to this rhetoric all on their own. They’ve been goaded along by anti-vaccine groups, which are more focused than ever on wooing state politicians and local groups.
“I need help with members of the health committee, because we’re going to face a couple huge bills that are gonna matter,” he said on a Zoom call with HFO’s members. “We’re gonna face a couple bills that this group does not like. And I have to have energy to stop this vaccine shit that’s coming.” Despite those comments, Lipps was allowed to keep his position as chair of the committee. (Lipps also publicly shared when he got his first vaccination shot in late March, writing on Facebook, “I do not believe in mandatory vaccines in ANY situation and will fight for medical freedom and personal choice. Many of you that know me, are aware I have dealt with some personal health struggles and live with some pre-existing conditions. With that, and strong input from my family, I made the decision to get the COVID-19 vaccine.”)
While they’ve spoken to state groups in the past, the pandemic has given new urgency to the messages of distrust these figures are trying to promote—and a new way for attendees to register their defiance, just by showing up. Some of these conferences have been held in person, with no requirements to social distance or any other attempts to keep people from getting or spreading COVID. Texans for Vaccine Choice held a “fall freedom festival” in October, to which attendees were urged to bring their kids; it featured speeches from Del Bigtree and pediatrician Bob Sears, a prominent figure amog anti-vaccine parents who was disciplined in 2018 and 2019 by the Medical Board of California for providing medical exemptions for vaccines to children who the Board said didn’t legally qualify for them.
“There’s a lot of really bad warning signs” about the COVID vaccines, Kennedy said in May of 2020, speaking over Zoom to the members of the anti-vaccine group Health Freedom Ohio. He was there to throw his support behind HB 268, a bill which would have prohibited employers from taking “adverse action” against someone for not being vaccinated. “Let’s get this legislation passed in Ohio and make Ohio a template that we can point to in the rest of the country. Let me know how I can help.” He paused, impishly. “Where are your masks?” he asked some of the audience members, grinning. “Just kidding!”
HB 268 failed to pass, but Health Freedom Ohio and Kennedy pressed on. In January of this year, he was in the state for the group’s annual symposium along with Mikovits and Andrew Wakefield, the father of the modern anti-vaccine movement. All of them spoke in front of a roaring, maskless crowd, who gave Wakefield a standing ovation after he insisted that the current vaccines will only serve to create ‘new strains’ of the virus. “We face an industry that will exploit this situation,” Wakefield said. “That’s where we’re headed.”
In truth, Wakefield was correct, and an industry is trying to exploit the pandemic: It's the industrious anti-vaccine lobby.
“When the pandemic hit, they became even more effective,” said Sarah Barry, an independent pro-vaccine activist who’s been keeping an eye on anti-vaccine groups in Ohio, where she lives. “This might be due in part to the fact that they were finally paying for a lobbyist who could do even more than them, but also because they felt like they had to put a stop to the 'tyranny' of Mike DeWine.” The pandemic, among other things, allowed anti-vax groups to join forces with other groups who felt oppressed by public health measures seeking to stop the spread of COVID. She’s found that at least five state legislators have done presentations or “town halls” with the state’s two leading anti-vaccine organizations, and more recently has seen them making alliances with other groups.
“When the pandemic hit, they became even more effective.”
“As protests against DeWine’s orders started at the statehouse, the anti-vax groups joined and began to network with other fringe causes and their ranks grew,” Barry said. “I started to notice that a lot of people at the protests (including of course the anti-vaxxers) were hosting somewhat regular gatherings at Blystone Farm in Ohio to coordinate strategy.”
And it’s not just Ohio. In September, Oklahoma State Representative Sean Roberts, the chair of the House of Representatives’ public health committee, invited two anti-vax doctors to speak at a hearing on the state response to the pandemic. The pair inveighed against mask-wearing and claimed people of color were at higher risk for COVID due to their melanin, both nonsensical claims. In October, Chris Kapenga, a Republican State Senator in Wisconsin, questioned the efficacy of masks and hospitalization numbers.
In the same vein, both anti-vaccine groups and their allies in state government are promoting paranoia about vaccine passports. Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis both recently signed executive orders against them, and several bullet points in AFDL's proposed Bill of Rights are clearly aimed at them.
“It’s a savvy political issue,” Ann Lewandowski says. She’s the executive director of the Wisconsin Immunization Neighborhood (WIN), a grassroots group in Wisconsin (Lewandowski spoke to VICE News on her own behalf, and was not expressing official policy for the group.)
Lewandowski says the major anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown group in her state has been, as she puts it, “very successful in becoming part of what I would call the new standard Republican platform.” That represents a major issue for the basic problem of getting the pandemic under control, she said.
“What has happened is that it’s become so entrenched and part of people’s identity that it’s going to be overwhelming,” she said. “In Wisconsin we have a 2:1 ratio of Republicans to Democrats. So in a situation where the Republicans have embraced this as a part of their ideology there’s no way for us to win. It’s going to be really problematic. We have a situation where people are going to decline to be vaccinated and that poses a serious biosecurity risk for everyone.” She’s particularly worried about rise in worrisome COVID variants, she said: “If we start getting into reinfections, we need a new vaccine and then we have to go through all of this all over again.”
“Honestly,” she said, “I’m worried for our communities.”
The Bill of Rights push is only one of many recent examples of state representatives across the country promoting anti-vaccine views in response to the pandemic. Earlier this month, grassroots organizers in Texas watched in alarm as lawmakers on the state’s Senate Committee on Health & Human Services had a warm exchange with Bigtree, who recently moved to the state and is the CEO of the Informed Consent Action Network, which seeks to cast doubt on the “scientific integrity” of vaccines.
Bigtree was testifying in favor of an “informed consent” bill introduced by State Senator Bob Hall that would require patients or their parents to be given a list of the “excipient” ingredients in a vaccine, meaning things like stabilizers. The Texas Medical Association has denounced the bill as a clear scare tactic, designed to discourage people from vaccinating themselves or their children by giving them a long list of ingredients that a layperson might find confusing and therefore frightening. (Misleadingly named “informed consent” laws have also been used as a barrier to abortion access.) Austin pediatrician Marjan Linnell told the committee “A list of highly technical, chemical compounds that may be used to help prevent bacterial contamination of the vaccine or that work as a stabilizer to protect the vaccine from heat or light is confusing. This information does not contribute to patients’ and parents’ understanding of the risks and benefits of vaccinations, and may sow doubt about the efficacy and safety of vaccines by complicating patient understanding.”
Bigtree, meanwhile, insisted in his testimony that the bill would discourage “anti-vaxxers,” a category he claimed he is not a part of. “I’ve never met a doctor that can list all the ingredients in vaccines,” he said. “Or tell us which ones have mercury, those types of things. In a world where we have such vaccine hesitancy—it’s probably one of the growing problems in this world as we speak—certainly holding back information is just playing into the hands of the anti-vaxxers.” (Vaccines do not contain mercury; Bigtree was repeating a common and oft-debunked anti-vaccine talking point.)
“Mr. Bigtree, what you’re saying is you’re not an anti-vaxxer, you’re just an information gatherer?” asked the chair of the committee, Republican State Senator Lois Kolkhurst. (Bigtree’s entire public profile is centered around opposition to vaccines, and he has previously, explicitly, in the hearing of this reporter, referred to himself as an “anti-vaxxer.”)
Bigtree warmly agreed that he was just gathering information; another committee member then praised the bill for creating transparency. Kolkhurst, who did not wear a mask throughout the duration of the hearing, has previously been critical of lockdown measures, writing on Facebook in September, “This pandemic has eagerly been used by some as a way to ‘reset’ and ‘reimagine’ our society or inflict unnecessary pain to impact a November election. The restrictions of the several months are perhaps the most devastating policy initiatives in our lifetime.”
The interaction was part of a disturbing trend for pro-immunization groups in the state, said Lacy Waller. She’s an organizer with Immunize Texas, a grassroots vaccine advocacy group that works throughout the state. “He co-opted pro vaccine language,” she said, to give cover to extreme ideas. Texas has seen that in the past, she said, often around anti-abortion bills, “but we’ve never seen the responsiveness of lawmakers” like this.
“Vaccines and immunization, we’ve worked hard to keep it a bipartisan issue in Texas,” she said. Texas lawmakers have long prided themselves on being “congenial” even on hot-button issues, she said. But this time, witnesses testifying against the bill were treated with barely disguised contempt, both during their testimony and when they called legislators’ offices to register their objection. “We’ve never seen this level of disrespect, or accommodation towards the anti-vax side,” she said.
The anti-vaccine activists continue to make the rounds: Bigtree is set to appear at VaxCon, an event in Wisconsin later this month sponsored by the state’s chiropractic association, virtually at the same moment that Andrew Wakefield is set to be a speaker at the so-called Health & Freedom conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Another featured speaker at that conference is ardently pro-Trump and pro-QAnon lawyer Lin Wood, which is not surprising; vaccine conspiracy theorists have also spent considerable time during the pandemic creating alliances with the far right.
Bigtree, Plandemic director Mikki Willis and anti-vax social media personalities Ty and Charlene Bollinger all attended a MAGA Health Freedom Rally on January 6, down the street from Capitol. (Willis, in fact, came to the rally directly after he’d filmed himself entering the Capitol in a large crowd. He hasn’t been accused of any acts of violence or vandalism or charged with any crimes.) The vaccine opponents are also eager to show the world that they’re presenting a united front, producing a surreal video titled “Unity” earlier this year declaring their opposition to “the threat of being bullied into vaccination,” as Lyn Redwood, a past president and current board member of Children’s Health Defense, put it.
In all, activists working to promote good information and trust in science are alarmed by the ways these new alliances seem to be gathering steam.
“This has stretched us,” says Lacy Waller, the Texas grassroots pro-vaccine activist, referring to the current political, legislative and social climate. “It has politicized illness in a way we’ve never seen before. We’ve never seen this level of ugliness. I don’t know what else to call it.”
Chumley, the legislator in South Carolina supporting a Vaccine Bill of Rights, said he remains “committed to freedom, liberty, justice.”
“People have the right to choose,” he said. “Sometimes you’re right, and sometimes you’re wrong.”
This article was updated after publication to clarify that Ann Lewandowski was speaking on her own behalf, not on behalf of WIN. An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Lois Kolkhurst as a State Representative. She is a State Senator.