Mo. health officials blast vaccine conspiracy theories, call misinformation 'baloney'

"Does a person at high risk or with a new cancer diagnosis run to TikTok or Facebook memes for medical advice?"

By Kurt Erickson
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
JEFFERSON CITY — Health officials on Thursday, frustrated by widespread misinformation on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, blasted conspiracy theories and urged Missourians to get immunized, as coronavirus cases continued to spread rapidly throughout the state.

First, in a letter sent to doctors in southern Missouri, a Washington University expert blasted claims alleging vaccines cause infertility, saying they were "based on false science."

Then, in a letter to thousands of state employees, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson's point man on the state's pandemic response said misinformation about vaccines is "baloney" and that vaccines can help bring the pandemic to an end.

"Enough is enough," said Robert Knodell, the acting director of the Department of Health and Senior Services. "The rhetoric from these individuals — the myths, conspiracy theories, the rumors with no valid context — is a bunch of baloney. Does a person at high risk or with a new cancer diagnosis run to TikTok or Facebook memes for medical advice?"

He said there are "groups of people who have been actively working to discredit proven vaccine information, and many are sadly even cashing in big due to these types of efforts. At the same time, the false information is being consumed. It is being believed. And it is costing lives."

Knodell's call for workers to get vaccines comes as other public and private sector employers are mandating workers get vaccines before they come to the office, factory or business. Google and Facebook announced vaccine requirements on Wednesday. St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones has said she is considering a vaccine requirement for city employees.

And St. Charles-based Ole Tyme Produce notified its 65 employees on Thursday that the COVID-19 vaccines were mandatory. All must be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30.

The company distributes produce to a wide variety of clients, including schools, assisted living facilities, health care facilities, casual dining chains and casinos, said President and CEO Joan Daleo. Recently, one of Ole Tyme Produce's clients, a health care system, announced that it would require all visitors to its campus to be vaccinated.

Daleo said a vaccine requirement seemed like the best way to protect employees and customers, and in all likelihood, more clients would probably enact vaccine requirements in the future.

"We're navigating, just like everybody else, a very uncertain climate," Daleo said. "Based on the science, it appears to be our best defense, to tamping this thing down."

'Stop this virus in its tracks'

In May, after vaccines became widely available, Missouri's governor ordered state workers back to their offices after nearly a year of allowing some to work remotely.

But the state's vaccination rate has lagged, and the spread of the delta variant has begun infecting workers. In the state's largest office building in the capital city, there have been 10 new cases this week.

Chris Moreland, spokesman for Parson's Office of Administration, said there are 45 active COVID-19 cases in the Harry S Truman State Office Building near the Capitol.

On Wednesday, two office suites in the building were temporarily closed for cleaning after positive tests were reported.

Other state agencies have seen outbreaks. The Department of Corrections currently lists 52 employees who have tested positive.

In his letter, Knodell, who is also Parson's deputy chief of staff, said hundreds of millions of doses of the vaccine have been safely administered, monitored and backed by high rates of effectiveness.

"We all want COVID-19 to be behind us. But the situation will not be under control to the point we will have a semblance of 'normal' until we can control the spread. The best way to do that is through widespread vaccination," he wrote.

Knodell also pitched the state's vaccine lottery to the workers, urging them to enter to win $10,000. The deadline to enter is Aug. 11.

"Let's not pretend we are invincible. Let's stop this virus in its tracks, once and for good. Together," Knodell wrote.

Fighting misinformation

Missouri officials reported 1,828 hospitalized COVID-19 patients statewide, the highest number since Jan. 28. St. Louis-area hospitals reported a total of 398 virus patients, up from 367 the day before, according to the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.

Dr. Kenan Omurtag, a fertility expert at Washington University and BJC HealthCare, on Thursday released a letter to doctors in southern Missouri, urging them to address misinformation around COVID-19 vaccines.

Omurtag serves as the division chief of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility and medical director of the Fertility and Reproductive Medicine Center at Washington University and BJC HealthCare.

Practically since the COVID-19 vaccines became available, Omurtag said, falsehoods have been spreading about connections between the vaccines and infertility. They are based on the premise that the antibodies one gains from the vaccines would affect a growing placenta.

That idea, Omurtag said Thursday, is plainly false. It ignores "the most basic tenets of immunology."

"The threat of infertility is a common trope used by opponents of vaccination," Omurtag wrote in his letter. "The vaccine DOES NOT cause infertility. Period."

Omurtag grew up in Phelps County and said he felt compelled to speak out after seeing misinformation spreading on social media. He said his friend, a family doctor practicing in southwest Missouri, has heard the concern commonly among patients.

Omurtag wrote that he believes there are still enough people willing to consider getting vaccinated that the state could reach a 70% vaccination rate. Getting vaccinated, he said, is in the best interest of patients and their children.

As of Thursday, 2.9 million people have received a first dose of vaccine statewide, or 48% of the population. And 41% have been fully vaccinated.     

(c)2021 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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