Out of more than 3 million doses administered, there have been zero deaths to-date connected to COVID-19 vaccinations in Louisiana — but you wouldn't know that if you tuned in to the Senate's Judiciary A Committee hearing Tuesday.
With legislation barring vaccine discrimination up for debate, a string of speakers repeatedly cited a federal database, often misinterpreted by anti-vaccine activist, to argue that the life-saving jab had killed nearly four dozen residents.
It was one of several misleading — or flat-out false — claims bandied about at Tuesday's hearing, offering a peek into the myths and untruths that Louisiana's public health officials are confronting as they attempt to convince nearly two-thirds of the state's residents to get vaccinated.
The erroneous death toll offered Tuesday came from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, an open-source database which publishes unconfirmed reports submitted by the public. A disclaimer on the website says the "reports alone cannot be used to determine if a vaccine caused or contributed to an adverse event or illness," in part because they "may include incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental and unverified information."
Despite that disclaimer, Jill Hines, co-director of Health Freedom Louisiana, cited it as fact. She added that while the state's Health Department had recently alerted physicians to a possible side affect of myocarditis from the vaccine in teens, it had kept the warning out of view from parents.
"I see news reports constantly about this adverse affect or that adverse affect, they’re very rare, very rare" said Sen. Jay Luneau, an Alexandria Democrat, eliciting groans from the audience.
Hines also claimed that she knew of a teen who had been paralyzed from the waist down by the vaccine. When asked by Luneau whether she had confirmed that with a doctor, Hines said she hadn't. A spokesperson for the Health Department said they haven't received a report of such a side effect.
"With this age of Internet....there's stuff reported out constantly all the time and we don't know if it's true or not. I really and truly think that would have been on the news reports somewhere if that was directly linked. I don’t think the media is trying to hide this stuff," Luneau said.
The flurry of misinformation came during testimony in support of House Bill 498, which would prohibit COVID-19 vaccine status from being used to determine whether a person can participate in public hearings, getting permits or licenses and participating in government programs.
The measure, from Rep. Kathy Edmonston, a Gonzales Republican, would also bar private businesses from denying entry to customers who aren't vaccinated against COVID-19, but only while the jab is under emergency use authorization. She argued it was an attempt to prevent Louisiana from becoming a two-tiered society.
"We are fast approaching vaccine totalitarianism in this country," said one woman, who cited a storeowner in Shreveport who put a sign up saying unvaccinated customers need to wear a mask. Another said that the nation was hurtling dangerously close to "potentially becoming the Fourth Reich" and that vaccine mandates "smacked of Nazism."
Testimony was also offered by a nursing student, who said superiors told her she'd be required to get vaccinated to attend clinical shifts. The provision preventing private businesses from discriminating will likely apply to hospitals, who elsewhere are already facing pushback from a minority of staffers who refuse to get vaccinated.
"If you don’t take the vaccine that means you can carry a deadly virus. This is about safety. It's not about discrimination," said Angelle Bradford, a cardiovascular physiology student in New Orleans who testified at the hearing. "You don’t have to go to nursing school ... but if you interact with folks that are vulnerable to COVID you have a responsibly not to give them COVID."
The measure passed out of committee by a 3-2 vote and now heads to the full Senate for debate.
Voting in favor of H.B. 498: Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek; Sen. Patrick McMath, R-Covington; Sen. Robert Mills, R-Minden.
Voting against H.B. 498: Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge; Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Baton Rouge.