- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
This story was republished on Jan. 14, 2022 to make it free for all readers
Facing a backlash that he was presenting misleading medical information, Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson defended his Monday news conference in which five people disclosed what they said were serious side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine.
After detailed and at times emotional statements from participants assembled in the Federal Courthouse in Milwaukee, Johnson said, "You witnessed these stories?"
"Do you think that's reckless and irresponsible?," he added, pushing back at a jibe from Gov. Tony Evers. "I think it's called compassion. I think it's showing concern for your fellow human beings who have stepped up."
Johnson, who tested positive for COVID-19 last year but has not taken the vaccine, insisted he was not trying to sow doubt about the vaccine.
"To a person, we are all pro-vaccine," Johnson said at the outset of the news conference. He acknowledged that more than 300 million doses of the vaccine have been given in the U.S. and "for the vast majority of people the vaccine has been administered with little or no side effects."
The group that spoke was put together by Ken Ruettgers, a former Green Bay Packers offensive lineman whose wife has said she has been affected by the vaccine. Ruettgers, who now lives in Oregon, has started a website to reach out to others. He said he paid hotel bills of those who traveled to Milwaukee for the event.
"They want to be heard, they want to be seen, they want to be believed," he said.
William Haseltine, a former long-time professor of virology at Harvard Medical School, said the people who Johnson brought in to tell their stories are examples of what already is known about the COVID vaccines — that they can cause serious side effects in a tiny percentage of people.
"I don't want to minimize their pain and suffering," he said. "For every one of those people you could bring in 500 to 1,000 who will tell you a story about long (term) COVID or losing a friend or relative. Each one of the stories is a heartbreaker."
Haseltine also said the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are the most effective and safe vaccines that have ever been produced. It is far riskier, he said, not to be vaccinated.
Among those who spoke was Stephanie de Garay of Cincinnati, whose 12-year-old daughter Maddie participated in the Pfizer trial in the winter. After receiving her second dose, Maddie experienced severe side effects that resulted in three hospitalizations over two months, her mother said.
Maddie, sitting in a wheelchair, listened as her mother told her story of developing "severe abdominal and chest pain."
She said her daughter told her: "It feels like my heart is being ripped out."
Maddie suffered from "unbearable" abdominal pain and developed additional symptoms, including brain fog, headaches, dizziness and seizures and "loss of feeling from the waist down," her mother said.
Maddie's mother said symptoms persist but "some days are worse than others."
Kristi Dobbs, a dental hygienist from Webb City, Missouri, said she received the Pfizer vaccine in January. Since then, she said, she has experienced severe side effects, including pain, paresthesia and heart palpitations.
Three days after receiving her first vaccine dose, she suffered severe pain she said, including "internal vibrations."
"It feels like you have this electric shock running through your body, like you're stuck in a vibrating chair," she said. "It never stops."
"I have tremors in my hands, which makes me leery that I will ever practice as a hygienist again," she said.
She said she has swollen lymph nodes, muscle weakness, convulsions and seizures.
"I had to have my 6-year-old daughter wake me up from a fit in the middle of the night," she said. "No 6-year-old should have to do that."
As he has done in the past, Johnson again raised the issue of possible vaccine-related deaths by passing out charts showing there were 4,800 deaths that had been linked to COVID vaccines that were reported to the federal government's vaccine adverse event website.
However, reports to the site, known as VAERS, can be filed by anyone and are not documented as actually having been caused by a vaccine.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that as of June 21, there have been 5,479 reports of deaths linked to COVID vaccines filed on the website, but that is out of nearly 320 vaccine doses that have been administered, or 0.0017%.
At the same time, COVID has claimed the lives of more than 600,000 Americans.
John Raymond Sr., president and CEO of the Medical College of Wisconsin, said as far as is known right now, there has not been an increase in deaths in people who have gotten vaccinated compared to people who haven’t been.
"Just throwing a number (of deaths) out there without context not only isn’t helpful, it might cause confusion," he said.
He said having people tell their stories about possible vaccine side effects is fine.
"My concern is simply telling stories of people’s strong beliefs that they’ve had a severe negative side effect from a vaccine might make people hesitant to get a vaccination, and they might not pursue other sources of information, like having a conversation with their physician or someone who has a more balanced view," he said.
Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson said in a statement that the senator "used his platform ... to raise misleading concerns regarding the COVID-19 vaccine. The scientific facts about the COVID-19 vaccine remain: it is safe, it is effective, and complications are extremely rare. More importantly, it saves lives."
The health commissioner urged Milwaukeeans "to talk to people they love and trust, listen to the experts and science, discuss questions and concerns with licensed medical or health professionals, and continue to get vaccinated to save lives in our community."
Madeline Heim of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin contributed to this report.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that about 320 million doses of the vaccine have been administered in the U.S. as opposed to 320 million complete vaccination
Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.
DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Ron Johnson defends news conference on COVID-19 vaccine side effects