Politically-driven vaccine resistance renders persuasion efforts all but futile in that segment of the population. A different, but still potent, obstacle is posed when trying to persuade those susceptible to conspiracy theories. What happens when the two tactics are deliberately and calculatedly used in tandem – facilitated by junk science? Might perpetuating this kind of compound disinformation count as treason if done by a public servant?
Conspiracy theories are dangerous, especially in the hearts of anti-vaxxers – but their beliefs extend beyond true believers- infecting social media and tainting the general public in ways hard to address and requires special (and time-intensive) efforts at defusing them.
“Even if most people dismiss conspiracy theories or accept them only in some limited sense, leaving very small numbers of true believers, the high visibility of these false ideas can still make them dangerous.”
Now add a large dollop of junk science to the concoction of conspiracy theory-tainted political ideology. The junk science format of this disinformation is particularly hard to diffuse as it is rendered in science-speak, a language with which most people are hardly proficient.
It’s hard to imagine a state official (even if politically-appointed) sworn to protect the public health employing toxic, dishonest (even sociopathic) rhetoric written in conspiracy-speak and based on junk science. Yet, just last week, Florida’s Surgeon General, Joseph Ladapo, issued a recommendation on state letterhead posted to the Florida Department of Health’s website that may qualify. Let’s see:
By August 2021, Florida held the record for COVID-19 hospitalizations, with a noticeable drop in the age of patients. Hospitals reported putting emergency room beds in hallways to address the surge. By October 5, Florida ranked third in US COVID cases, transmitted, in large part by asymptomatic younger patients. Florida’s death rates are also among the nation’s highest. In no small measure, Florida’s troubling statistics can be linked to anti-public health directives issued by its Governor, including junk- science-based anti-mask mandates. 
On October 7, Florida’s Surgeon General (a political appointee) issued a recommendation against using mRNA Covid vaccines in men between 18 and 39, citing an increased risk of cardiac deaths. In support, he posted an unusual document, which he called an “analysis” (as opposed to an epidemiological study or research).
“The State Surgeon General now recommends against the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines for males ages 18-39 years old.”
The recommendation and the “analysis” were heavily criticized by doctors, scientists, and researchers, dismantled limb by limb, premise by premise. Method, results, data, and conclusions were lacking or outright invalid. But leave it to RFK Jr’s Children's Health Defense to attack the criticism, not five days later (and reattack it again), complete with grisly, inflammatory graphics posted on his Twitter feed.
The junior Kennedy should have waited a week.
Myocarditis in Young Men
On October 19, the New England Journal of Medicine published Myocarditis after BNT162b2 Vaccination in Israeli Adolescents, which categorically debunks RFK’s arguments and the mRNA vaccine-danger myths.
The earliest reports of concern for myocarditis risks in young men came from Israel. The NEJM article reports the follow-up Israeli study, evaluating over 185,000 young men, ages 16 to 29 (not 39), for six months. The conclusion: 20 possible cases of myocarditis were found, of which only nine were probable or proven.
According to Israeli researchers, “All cases of myocarditis were classified as mild.” Other research confirmed that only mild cardiac effects from mRNA vaccines occurred in men 16 to 24. A study in Circulation noted additional myocarditis cases in men under 40 (average age 32) but emphasized the overall benefits of vaccination.
Vaccine benefits outweigh low risk
Safety, including the risk of myocarditis, must be evaluated on a risk-benefit analysis, balancing the small risk of myocarditis with the greater and more significant risks of contracting and transmitting COVID.
So, what are the comparative risks of contracting myocarditis in those suffering from COVID – versus those who weren’t vaccinated? According to the American Heart Association:
“Overall, the risk of myocarditis is greater after SARS-CoV-2 infection than after COVID-19 vaccination.”
Heart complications from long COVID also must be factored into the balancing. A robust study of over 150,000 persons by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs revealed that this cardiac risk is “substantial” for at least a year after developing COVID, remaining elevated even for people with mild cases. Research now confirms the safety of these vaccines for children as young as six months. In sum:
“At the individual level, immunization prevents not only COVID-19–related myocarditis but also severe disease, hospitalization, long-term complications after COVID-19 infection, and death. At the population level, immunization helps to decrease community spread, decrease the chances of new variants emerging, protect people who are immunocompromised, and ensure how the health care system can continue to provide for our communities.”
- JAMA Cardiology Editor Ann Marie Navar, MD, Ph.D., Deputy Editor Robert Bonow, MD
Let’s contrast these consensus views with the “analysis” on Florida’s website provided by its Surgeon General. Here’s the first paragraph. Notice anything unusual for a scientific “publication?”
Here are some clues:
- It wasn’t “published” – at least not in any reputable journal, nor was it peer-reviewed. It wasn’t even posted on any pre-print vehicle, say SSRN (which, by the way, requires a “no conflict declaration,” along with financial disclosures)
- There are no authors listed.
Apparently, the work was commissioned by the Surgeon General and performed by the state’s employees. Is this a conflict of interest, perhaps?
Want more red flags:
- The “analysis” uses an unverified methodology for this work, another tip-off of a “junk-science” determination, at least legally speaking.
- The “analysis” itself contains numerous limitations that make its reliance shaky.
Let’s talk about motives.
What would possess a Surgeon General to subject his state’s doctors to a medical malpractice claim by issuing such a recommendation? (Yes, that’s just what would happen if a doctor administered the vaccine and someone did get myocarditis, as rare as it would be).
Consider that Surgeon General Ladapo, considered by MedPage Today a vaccine skeptic, really is concerned. In this case, a reasonably prudent health official might write to the State’s doctors. Here’s an example of how it might be written:
It has come to our attention that mRNA vaccines may pose a higher risk of myocarditis in young men as compared to other vaccines. Therefore, we recommend that you consider using one of the COVID vaccine alternatives in young male patients with a history of coronary disease.
Instead, Dr. Ladapo speaks through social media via Tweet, as if a Tweet is an acceptable public service announcement, let alone a valid method of communication with Florida’s physicians.
Now, let’s look at the language he used:
“We will not be silent on the truth”? Is this the dog whistle of conspiracy? It seems vaguely reminiscent of television’s X-files, “The Truth is Out There.”
Anti-vax propaganda and disinformation have been amplified via social media 24/7 by the “anti-vax industry,” by bots, and by the Russians.  According to Health Law Professor Ana Santos Rutschman's book, Vaccines as Technology, the Russians, interestingly, specifically focused on trashing mRNA vaccines. Part of the reason was to increase demand for competitor vaccines. Part was to increase public polarization and dissension
Back to Florida:
The similarities with Ladapo’s announcement bear note.
“As one expert said: This is “the first time that we’ve seen a state government weaponize bad science to spread anti-vaccine disinformation as official policy.”
Still have doubts? Let’s take a final look at the latest Israeli data:
“Our study indicates that BNT162b2 vaccine–induced myocarditis in adolescents appears to be a rare adverse event that occurs predominantly in males after the second vaccine dose. The clinical course appears to be mild and benign over a follow-up period of 6 months, and cardiac imaging findings suggest a favorable long-term prognosis.”
 The Supreme Court has just validated the TSA’s authority to insist on mask mandates, overruling Florida’s contradictory ruling.
 The cited study discussed this Russian disinformation in 2018; the COVID pandemic has significantly increased Russian activity to discredit mRNA vaccines.
We have mistakenly identified the Children's Defense Fund, which is decidedly not anti-vax, with RFK Jr's Children's Health Defense. We are extremely sorry for the error and it has been corrected in the text.