BOISE, Idaho — A newsletter from the office of the Idaho lieutenant governor used a misleading number to disparage the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, the Idaho Falls Post Register found after talking with an office staffer and three outside experts.
The newsletter edition, dated Aug. 27 and disseminated on an official Idaho government website, complete with the state seal, falsely claimed that 69% of vaccinated people died within 28 days of receiving a positive COVID-19 test. The letter, signed by Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, of Idaho Falls, uses data from a Public Health England briefing that is highly technical to aid its false suggestion that Idahoans “may be significantly worse off health-wise if they get vaccinated?”
Clinical trials and real-world observations show the vaccine is highly effective against the novel coronavirus, including widely circulating strains such as the delta variant, which is the dominant strain nationally and in Idaho. The vaccines offer high levels of protection against infection, hospitalization and death, state data show.
“Those who are unvaccinated are over seven times more likely to be hospitalized in Idaho,” Dr. Kathryn Turner, one of Idaho’s top public health researchers, said during a Tuesday news conference.
The math by McGeachin’s office is misleading because it compares deaths among two populations — vaccinated and unvaccinated — without accounting for how large each population is, two experts told the Post Register.
And the United Kingdom is highly vaccinated compared to the United States. In the U.K. 79% of people age 16 and up have received two vaccine doses, while 89% have received at least one shot, according to BBC News on Thursday.
“The conclusions they are trying to draw from it are not just wrong, but actually the opposite of what is correct,” said Jennifer Johnson-Leung, a University of Idaho mathematics professor who leads a pandemic modeling group at the university.
“If 100% of the people in your country are vaccinated, then every death will be a vaccinated death, and so this underlying information that they’re ignoring — of what fraction of the people in the country are vaccinated — is essential information to be able to extract anything from the table,” she said.
The technical report was written for scientists, not for the general public, she said. The data table that McGeachin’s office utilized for the misleading figure has useful information, Johnson-Leung said, but more information is needed to make vaccine efficacy claims.
“But no one can determine vaccine effectiveness or vaccine risk from this table without knowing the underlying vaccination (rate) in this population. That is not what this table is meant to do,” she said.
Other researchers routinely acknowledge data shortcomings.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in its report on a Massachusetts outbreak that the data for the report “are insufficient to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, including the delta variant, during this outbreak.”
“As population-level vaccination coverage increases, vaccinated persons are likely to represent a larger proportion of COVID-19 cases,” the CDC said.
In a Post Register column on Wednesday, Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center intensive care physician Dr. Kenneth Krell said “McGeachin is either ignorant or lying.” Regardless, he said in an interview this week, “it is horrible misinformation and people are going to die as a result of that.”
McGeachin is running for governor in the 2022 election. Incumbent Gov. Brad Little has not announced whether he will seek a second term.
The rhetorical tactics used in the newsletter were familiar to Jen Schneider, a Boise State University professor who studies scientific controversy. In particular, the “dueling fact” sheet strategy tries to disrupt knowledge about prevailing knowledge on a controversy, she told the Post Register in a phone interview.
The “purpose is not to create debate, it is to create uncertainty,” Schneider said.
McGeachin suggests that vaccines harm people in a question in the newsletter.
“Why is Governor Little allowing companies to force vaccinate Idahoans when the data is clear that they may be significantly worse off health-wise if they get vaccinated?” the newsletter said.
Schneider said asking a question that “manufactures that sense of uncertainty” is a common tactic. She pointed to Fox News opinion host Tucker Carlson as an example.
“By pretending there’s a debate, or pretending there’s information we don’t have, it creates that sense of doubt and uncertainty. Which then allows somebody to come in and say ‘There is no expertise on this, so I’m just going to default to my political identity,’” Schneider said.
“I think what this accomplishes is to further underline this sense of uncertainty, and that people in authority are making decisions on bad information or bad science. And so that supports the lieutenant governor’s position around no mask mandates, no vaccine requirements, that sort of thing. Because she’s really trying to position herself in opposition to Governor Little, who himself has not implemented any of those, but she’s trying to make it seem as if he had, I think.”
Little on Tuesday said one way to slow COVID-19’s impact on the state would be for Idahoans to get the vaccine.
“It is our ticket out of the pandemic,” he said.
Minutes later, McGeachin called his suggestion “shameful” in a tweet.
The next day, McGeachin posted an Idaho Statesman article about her comments, saying “The media is at it again with their lies. I have always said if you want the vaccine, get the vaccine. It was shameful yesterday when the governor said in order to love your neighbor, you must get the vaccine. That assertion remains shameful today.”
McGeachin’s Chief of Staff, Jordan Watters, explained the math in emails that he said were not official statements of the lieutenant governor’s office. He said the newsletter author had divided the number of unvaccinated deaths over age 50 by the number of total COVID-19 deaths over age 50 to equate vaccinated deaths. When a Post Register reporter asked Watters to replicate the math, it came out 1% higher — at 70.446%. The value listed in the newsletter was 69.49%. Watters attributed the difference to a rounding error.
Reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel can be reached at 208-542-6754. Follow him on Twitter: @pfannyyy. He is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.
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