When H. Scott Apley died at 45 of COVID-19, he became a face of vaccine refusal by the political right. A GoFundMe drive for his wife and baby son drew scorn as the city councilman’s social media posts circulated.

“I wish I lived in the area!” the Houston-area member of the Texas Republican Party’s governing board wrote this spring about a “mask burning” party in Cincinnati. “You are an absolute enemy of a free people,” he once replied on Twitter to a doctor’s post celebrating the effectiveness of Pfizer’s shots against the coronavirus.

In the GOP circles where Apley was well known, however, there was little mention of COVID-19 or how to prevent it. Two days after mourning their former vice chairman in a Facebook post that did not say what put him on a ventilator, the Galveston County Republican Party shared a far-right website’s medical-evidence-free claim that immunization against the coronavirus had killed a young conservative activist. “Another tragedy — From the Vaccine!!!!!” they warned.

Apley’s hospitalization and death showcased the bitterness of the country’s divide over coronavirus vaccination, and over how to bridge it, as the pandemic makes personal tragedy inseparable from politics. The Dickinson, Texas, councilman’s community offers a stark counterpoint amid a slew of stories about people who urge others to get vaccinated after losing a skeptical loved one to COVID-19.

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

In national news coverage and the online firestorm that followed, Apley was a lightning rod for the country’s frustration as it struggles to bring the virus under control. To many, his fatal illness was a consequence of sometimes skeptical and even hostile GOP statements on immunization, as more than 100 million eligible Americans — disproportionately Republican — have yet to get their first shots.

Advertising

“Republican leaders are to blame for Apley’s death,” said one Houston man’s letter to the editor in the Galveston County Daily News, as the highly transmissible delta variant fueled a new surge of coronavirus cases straining hospitals.

But for others who knew Apley, only one story mattered: His family was suffering, and now, with cruel comments and laughing emoji, strangers from out-of-state were piling on. In Apley’s political sphere, some said the tragedy was only entrenching people’s divisions over the vaccines and a resurging virus — much less sending people soul-searching about their beliefs or their party’s messaging.

“Everyone already has an opinion, and it didn’t change because of Scott,” said Marco Roberts, the Houston-based chairman of the Log Cabin Republicans of Texas. In a Facebook post, he criticized those “seeking to make political points of [Apley’s] death — as if his unique and anecdotal tragedy had anything to do with public policy that affects millions.”

Karen Stoehr, Apley’s sibling by adoption, also hated the use of Apley’s death to make a public health point, even as she believes so strongly in the coronavirus vaccines that she won’t let people see her 88-year-old dad without them. A full-time caretaker for her ailing father in small-town Kansas, Stoehr said she did not read all the news about her brother, stays away from politics and generally has “other things going on in my life.”

She said she also does not know if Apley’s death has swayed their sister, a teacher who she said has previously declined to get vaccinated and who did not return a call from The Post.

“They’ve been praying for a baby,” Stoehr said of her brother and his wife, her voice starting to quiver. “They just got one. And then he’s gone!”

Advertising

Apley’s wife, Melissa, declined to be interviewed or discuss her husband’s decision-making but did not dispute people’s belief that he was unvaccinated. She told The Post in text messages that her husband was only “against the government forcing people to get vaccinated.”

She said he supported her choice to get the shot before he fell sick, something Apley’s friends remembered her telling them and sharing on social media.

Melissa Apley said she also got the virus, as Americans learn to expect some level of “breakthrough” infections. But she recovered. She said she has reunited with her months-old son, who tested negative and does not show symptoms.

She said she forgives those who celebrated her husband’s death.

“CONGRATULATIONS,” read one shiny card sent to the city of Dickinson after Apley’s death that echoed the worst of the online comments. “Guess the grim reaper got the last laugh,” the card went on inside, adding a smiley face and welcoming “one more dead Republican.”

Dickinson Mayor Sean Skipworth said the vitriol was “morally wrong” and probably not productive.

“‘Hey, idiots, go get vaccinated,'” he said, as some use the phrase “compassion fatigue” to talk about people who refuse the vaccines. “I mean, I don’t know what that is meant to accomplish.” Many in Apley’s party, under fire for their approach to COVID-19, felt similarly.

Advertising

“No one likes to be shouted into a different opinion,” echoed Roberts of the Log Cabin Republicans. “And so when people start being shouted at and being accused and charged and, you know, besieged, the natural inclination is to … circle the wagons.”

Months of data show that those who get immunized are significantly less likely to get sick, and even less likely to go to the hospital or die from COVID-19.

But Roberts focused on uncertainty.

“The truth is, we don’t know that had Scott made different choices the outcome would have been any different for him,” he told the Log Cabin Republicans of Texas’ followers on social media, pointing later to breakthrough infections and underlying factors like Apley’s weight.

Apley’s friend Hank Dugie said he believes the most effective messaging on vaccines is “positive, upbeat, motivational” — encouraging but not judgmental. “We don’t press people on getting vaccinated,” said Dugie, who serves as mayor pro tem for League City, Texas, right next to Apley’s town.

The coronavirus situation in Texas has only escalated since Apley’s death. Doctors are pleading for help as the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients statewide approaches levels not seen since the winter. Dugie is chair of his county’s COVID-19 business task force and knows that the vast majority of people who fall seriously ill are unvaccinated.

Yet with Apley, he said, he feels no responsibility to “talk about how he died or why he died.” He said he believes in sharing statistics, not emotional stories. “If anything,” Dugie said, in the wake of Apley’s death, “people have retreated into their own confirmation biases.”

Sponsored

Dugie and others in Apley’s political circles also rejected the idea that Republican leaders are to blame.

“It’s not words that are killing people,” said Dan Davis, a city councilman in Manvel, Texas.

“Both parties have had very unfortunate messaging at times,” said Jared Robinson, a Republican state district court judge.

Asked about the Galveston County GOP’s Facebook post claiming the vaccine killed someone, Dugie noted the group’s chairman is a doctor and said, “I don’t think it represents the party at all.”

The county GOP chairman, Patrick McGinnis, said in an email that Republican leaders are anti-mandate, not anti-vaccine or anti-public health. He pointed to a Kaiser Family Foundation polling that shows vaccination rates varying by age, race and education, not just party. Among more than a dozen demographic groups broken out, however, Republicans had the lowest levels of immunization.

McGinnis said that he is vaccinated and encourages others to get their shots whenever they ask. He also said the Facebook post about the alleged vaccine death does not represent the party’s “official position” and agreed there was no clear evidence for it.

Advertising

But the physician said he does not want to intervene in his group’s postings.

“Better to let people share their opinions and post articles, rather than try to be the Facebook policeman,” he said.

Jeff Larson, an official with the Harris County Republican Party, said he believes that some leaders of local GOP groups are reflecting their base’s views on vaccines or “don’t want to tackle the issue directly for fear — for fear of alienating a large segment of the party.”

“Certainly if you are a person in the United States today and you want to believe a conspiracy theory about vaccines … you’ll probably land in our party,” he said.

The last time Larson saw Apley alive, he said, was at the funeral of Jeff LeBlanc, another man active in Texas Republican politics who died of COVID-19. Before that, the coronavirus took Texan and Republican Liberty Caucus leader Dave Nalle.

Just a few days after Apley’s death, 61-year-old Larson got his first shot — the timing was a coincidence, Larson said, it just took him awhile to make it in.

Advertising

Vaccination rates in the United States have ticked up in recent weeks, public health officials say, as fears spike with the delta variant. Galveston County is no exception, according to the local health district. State data has it lagging a few percentage points behind the nation as a whole, with full vaccination for about 57 percent of the population 12 and over.

Officials urged holdouts to reconsider at last week’s Dickinson City Council meeting, where the masked-up mayor read Apley’s name at roll call and then waited six long seconds before moving on.

“He did his homework, he never came to a council meeting where he wasn’t prepared,” a fellow Councilman remembered at the meeting.

“It could have been prevented,” another said. They knew Apley not as a thrower of online insults but as a nice guy immersed in local problems — on his city councilman Facebook page, he posted about a job fair, a driver’s license renewal deadline and the safest way to thaw frozen pipes.

Skipworth, who said he grew up not knowing his birth father and felt for Apley’s child, said the rhetoric around Apley’s death scared him. “It’s frightening for how we talk to each other in this country,” he said.

“I’m vaccinated, my wife’s vaccinated, my kid will get vaccinated when they approve it,” Skipworth said, as children younger than 12 remain ineligible. “I think that’s the way to prevent this and to get back to more of what we know normal life was. So please, please, do that.”

Advertising

“I’m not making a political statement,” he continued. “It’s not a mandate. It’s not anything. It’s not shaming. But please, please, do that.”

Just to the west, Davis — the Manvel councilman — was maybe shifting, but not yet sold.

A father of two young children, Davis said that Apley’s death was a reminder to be “responsible, so that I can be here for them.” For 28-year-old Davis, however, responsibility means getting a coronavirus test if you feel sick, or isolating, or telling your close contacts about an infection. He said he worries about the long-term consequences of the vaccine even as he believes they have done “a tremendous amount of good.”

Apley’s death “challenged” his thinking, said Davis, a conservative who met Apley through the local political scene.

He talked with his wife afterward, and they wondered, “What do we do?” They are praying at the end of every day, he said, waiting to get the vaccine until they have some answer from God.

Navigating the pandemic
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

More