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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa’s yearslong movement against vaccine mandates has grown significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, with several “medical freedom” groups gaining followers and political influence.
Protests against mask mandates and vaccine requirements have become commonplace in Iowa, with ralliers gathering outside hospitals and in the Capitol rotunda. One of the primary organizers is Informed Choice Iowa, a group that began in 2017 to organize against other vaccine requirements and health mandates.
Archived versions of the group’s Facebook page shows its influence has grown significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic: the page had about 5,000 likes in late August 2020. The page now has over 9,500 likes, and more than 10,000 users following.
“We were not this vast three years ago when we started,” said leader Lindsay Maher at the group’s annual conference. “That is a very beautiful and encouraging thing.”
The Informed Conference, an all-day Nov. 13 event in Des Moines, drew about 700 attendees, Vice President Brei Johnson said in a Facebook video, including many visitors from out of state.
“We had to make a smaller stage this year because we had so many more tables we needed to fit in,” Johnson said, panning the camera to show a packed ballroom at the Holiday Inn in Des Moines.
Other groups organizing against COVID-19 vaccine mandates have seen similar growth. Sonya Swan, leader of Iowans for Informed Consent, said the pandemic caused “a heightened sense of urgency and a growth in partnerships with other organizations.”
“There has not only been growth in IFIC, but with other groups as well over the last 2 years as people continue to seek answers,” Swan wrote in an email to the Iowa Capital Dispatch. Iowans for Informed Consent is over a decade old, but Swan said the group has done more events and encouraged more people to connect with legislators in the past year than it had previously.
Kari Hartpence, a nurse in the Des Moines area, started a group in June for health care workers who did not approve of vaccine mandates. Now, Iowans for Medical Freedom — which Hartpence emphasized was not anti-vaccine, but just anti-mandate — is a private Facebook group with 2,400 members. A backup page, Iowans for Medical Freedom 2, has over 500 members.
“And then as it grew, it became apparent that this was not going to stop at health care facilities. They’re going to start mandating for everyone,” Hartpence said. “And so then we had a lot more people want to join.”
National groups are seeing similar patterns.
“We saw massive growth, especially on the heels of the announcement of vaccine passports to fly … Literally within four weeks of that announcement, we had 120,000 new people taking action on our platform,” said Leah Wilson, executive director and co-founder of the national Stand for Health Freedom group.
She said members have been concerned about federal vaccine rules, which some employers started to implement before courts intervened.
Groups promote skepticism
Protests against mask and vaccine mandates have become commonplace in Iowa over the past year. Event leaders focus on issues of government overreach, warning of tyranny and socialism, and they emphasize the importance of allowing individuals to choose whether to get a vaccine.
Within Facebook pages and in private events, the groups promote a broader skepticism about the safety of vaccines against COVID-19 and other diseases.
This month’s Informed Choice Iowa conference, called “STAND: A Battle For Our Bodies,” included speakers like Dr. Paul Thomas, an Oregon pediatrician who had his license suspended last year for pushing an alternative vaccination schedule. Thomas allegedly encouraged parents not to vaccinate their children against some diseases, promoting unfounded claims that vaccines cause autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that vaccines do not cause autism.
Another conference guest was Del Bigtree, producer of a film that links autism and vaccines and the host of an anti-vaccination web show. Big tree has been banned from Facebook and YouTube for spreading disinformation.
Swan said that hesitation around the COVID-19 vaccine has led some new group members to question vaccines more broadly.
“If anything, the COVID-19 situation has alerted many people to issues with our current scientific methods and conflicts of interest,” Swan wrote.
Informed Choice Iowa leaders did not respond to requests for comment.
Anthony Newcomb, an Informed Choice Iowa group member who traveled from Cedar Rapids to the conference, said he had observed several people who support vaccination, including some who received their COVID-19 vaccine, “starting to wake up to the fact that they’ve been duped.”
Newcomb pointed to changing guidance from the CDC — like different mask recommendations and the need for a booster shot — as a vector of mistrust, causing people to doubt the medical establishment more broadly.
“When does the red flag go up?” he asked. “How many boosters do you need?”
The CDC has changed guidance throughout the pandemic as research on COVID-19 and the vaccines has evolved.
Dr. Ashlesha Kaushik, an Iowa American Academy of Pediatrics board member, said doctors face an ongoing fight against vaccine misinformation on social media.
“There have been several myths floating around, and we should not emphasize those. We should emphasize that the vaccine is very, very safe and very, very effective,” she said. Kaushik noted that COVID-19 can have serious symptoms, even in children, and that the benefits of the vaccines far outweigh the risks of side effects. Severe side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine are rare, according to the CDC.
Kaushik encouraged parents to ask questions of their doctors and their children’s pediatricians about the COVID-19 vaccine and other vaccinations.
“There have been a lot of studies that show that parents have a lot of trust in pediatricians and doctors, and they consider them reliable sources of information,” Kaushik said.
Activist group leaders acknowledged there was diversity of opinion within their movement on the safety of vaccines.
Hartpence, a leader of Iowans for Medical Freedom, said she decided to vaccinate her children and that her group, which opposes employer COVID-19 vaccine mandates, was “not at all” anti-vax or partisan.
“It’s a big group of people who believe in freedom, specifically medical freedom and the right to do what you want with your body,” Hartpence said.
This article first appeared in the Iowa Capital Dispatch.