A young emergency room doctor stood before dozens of students in a Tampa convention center this month and gave them a script for resisting coronavirus vaccines.
“You say, ‘I’m 18 years old. I have no health conditions. Based on the five-year mortality data, I have a high likelihood of dying from flu vs. COVID, and I don’t get the flu vaccine, so I’m not going to get this one,'” Sean Ochsenbein, a 33-year-old attending physician in Johnson City, Tennessee, told students gathered for a summit hosted by the conservative youth group Turning Point USA, according to a recording of the session obtained by The Washington Post. “Drop the mic. You’re done. That’s it.”
That presentation is just one way the group led by Charlie Kirk, 27, has recently sought to rally young people against vaccine mandates.
Text messages announcing Kirk as their author warn that President Joe Biden is “sending goons DOOR-TO-DOOR to make you take a COVID-19 vaccine.” Facebook ads from Kirk’s tax-exempt nonprofit insist the government has “NO RIGHT to force you to inject yourself with an experimental vaccine,” and say the best response to outreach about the shots is to, “LOCK YOUR DOORS, KIDS!!”
These statements stand on a slew of falsehoods and mischaracterizations, according to vaccine experts. At least 400 people 18 and under have died of COVID-19 in the United States, making the virus more lethal than the flu, said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The coronavirus also carries the risk of an inflammatory syndrome that can affect the lungs, heart and kidneys of children and young adults. Federal health authorities recommend the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children as young as 12. “Any reasonable person who looks at the data would conclude the safer choice is to get the vaccine,” Offit said.
But the communications by Turning Point USA and its affiliate, Turning Point Action, reflect the increasingly hard line taken by the group, which describes itself as the “largest and fastest-growing youth organization in America” and claims a presence on more than 2,500 college and high school campuses. Its dire warnings about a government-backed inoculation program — now a major theme of its Facebook ads, which have been viewed millions of times — illustrate how the Trump-allied group is capitalizing on the stark polarization around vaccine policy.
Experts say the messages, many of which steer online audiences to donation pages, threaten to undermine vaccine confidence among young people, who have already proved particularly reluctant to roll up their sleeves. And they could incite conflict over vaccine requirements as students return to campuses wrestling with how to safely reopen this fall, with some battling in court to require vaccination.
The input from Turning Point USA is “not so much about the particular topic as having a politically divisive social issue that can rally the troops,” said Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “That’s unfortunate for any issue, but when we’re talking about life and death, it’s particularly troubling to me.”
Andrew Kolvet, a spokesperson for Kirk, said the activist is only opposed to vaccine mandates, adding, “If anywhere my client is represented as anti-vaccine that will be taken very seriously. This is a pro-freedom movement, not ‘anti-vax.'”
The messages from his group stand out especially now because they’re discordant with a chorus of establishment GOP voices speaking with new urgency in favor of immunization, as the delta variant strikes hardest in red states. While former president Donald Trump, speaking at a weekend rally hosted by Turning Point Action in Phoenix, said he would “recommend” attendees take the vaccines, others have spoken out more forcefully. Rep. Steve Scalise, of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican, said he got the vaccine this month because of the delta variant. Sarah Sanders, a former White House press secretary for Trump and now a candidate for governor in Arkansas, wrote an op-ed over the weekend urging readers to get the “Trump vaccine.”
Kirk, who has catapulted himself to the center of Republican politics by cultivating a relationship with Trump and his family, called this approach by party leaders “virtue signaling” in an appearance on Fox’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight” last week. He also pointed misleadingly to the high volume of activity in the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, where incomplete and unverified data about vaccine side effects — meant for examination by scientists and medical experts — are being misused by lawmakers and others to sow doubt about the shots, which passed rigorous safety reviews and have now been safely administered to hundreds of millions of people in the United States alone.
In messages to his 1.7 million Twitter followers, Kirk has raised similar alarm about unverified reports of side effects and asked whether stores and airlines should consider banning vaccinated people from entry because some are still testing positive for the virus — an expected outcome despite the overall efficacy of the vaccines. Referring to Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Kirk wrote over the weekend on Twitter, “Fauci for Prison.” This month, he hosted Robert Kennedy Jr., a leading purveyor of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, for a 30-minute conversation on his podcast, “The Charlie Kirk Show.”
The gulf between the message offered by Kirk and the one delivered by many elected Republicans arises from their distinct incentives, said Patrick Ruffini, a GOP pollster and partner at Echelon Insights. Elected officials “will be held accountable by voters if a COVID surge happens on their watch,” he said, while activist groups may seek to mobilize supporters to donate by focusing on divisive issues like vaccine mandates.
Turning Point USA, which is registered as a type of nonprofit that cannot engage in political campaigning, raised nearly $40 million in the 12 months ending July 2020, according to its most recent public tax filing. Kirk drew a salary of more than $325,000 from the group and related organizations that year, the filing shows. Turning Point Action, set up by Kirk as a social welfare organization in 2019, is allowed more leeway politically, but is still barred from making politics its primary focus and, in return, is also exempt from federal income tax.
Texts and posts from Turning Point regularly direct users to fundraising pleas. On Facebook, ads warning of forced government injections take users to a site describing the group’s fight against “rogue administrators” forcing students to “publicly share their medical history.” At the bottom of the page is a donate button. In response to questions from The Post, Facebook rejected several of the paid posts for violating its policy against ads that “discourage someone from getting a vaccine,” said Dani Lever, a company spokeswoman. The posts had already been viewed as many as 10 million times, according to data from Facebook’s ad archive.
The text messages signed by Kirk, and sent earlier this month, ask recipients to sign a petition addressed to Biden opposing “door-to-door medical raids.” Those who sign are asked to donate to “win the fight to save America.” A prechecked box automatically enrolls donors into a recurring monthly contribution — a fundraising technique all six members of the Federal Election Commission recently asked Congress to ban, saying many contributors were being deceived by the feature. Kolvet, Kirk’s spokesman, said the precheck feature was added by a vendor and would be removed.
The text messages were sent by Turning Point Action using Twilio, a cloud communications platform. A Twilio spokesman said the San Francisco-based company prohibits “language that is deemed deceptive, misinformation and/or poses a threat to the public.” But the spokesman, Cris Paden, declined to say whether the text circulated by Turning Point Action violated that policy or how many of the messages were sent, citing customer confidentiality.
Kolvet said the text message, which begins, “Charlie Kirk here,” was not approved by Kirk and did not go through the “proper approval process.”
“The mistake is being resolved internally,” he said. But he also defended the point of the text, saying “door-to-door vaccination campaigns” are a “terrifying prospect for many Americans, especially conservatives and civil libertarians.” The door-to-door effort aims to send volunteers and clergy to help educate people about the vaccines and remove barriers to access, such as transportation.
Kolvet added, “Charlie has said repeatedly that the vaccine makes logical sense for millions of Americans, and they should have the freedom to chose. What Charlie has advocated against are mandatory vaccinations and vaccine passports, especially for the healthiest groups in society, namely young people and students.”
When asked to provide examples of Kirk’s statements in favor of coronavirus vaccines, Kolvet shared a clip from March in which Kirk said, “I’m making the decision not to get the vaccine. I’m not going to give people that advice. I’m not going to say it’s good. I’m not going to say it’s bad.” He made similar remarks on other occasions, including saying in July, “I’m not pro-vaccine, I’m not anti-vaccine. Instead, I’m against the mandating of the vaccine.”
Offit said the claims used by Turning Point to oppose vaccine mandates inflame antipathy to vaccines more broadly by playing on fear and distrust of the federal government. The claims also risk reinforcing political ideology instead of science as grounds for decisions about vaccination, said Katherine Ognyanova, an associate professor of communication at Rutgers University who has studied vaccine misinformation. If young conservatives believe resisting vaccine requirements is part of their political identity, she said, they will be less likely to take the vaccine.
“It’s a damaging message for young people, especially with the new variants,” she said.
Ochsenbein, the Tennessee doctor tapped as a “breakout speaker” for Turning Point’s recent student summit, told his audience it was acceptable to get the vaccine. “If you want the vaccine, and you have read the data and you want to get it, hurrah for you,” he said, according to the recording. “But if you don’t want it, you should fight it tooth and nail.”
In an interview, Ochsenbein, who was awarded a Medal of Valor by Trump in 2018 for saving a person trapped after a fiery car crash, said he had been vaccinated. He told students in Tampa he had made that decision, he said, and also posted a picture of himself getting the shot on Instagram.
He said he participated in the summit, addressing a crowd that he estimated included between 100 and 200 students, because he “wanted to make sure there was medical representation there.” He affirmed in his remarks that the virus was “real,” but also said the delta variant was being used by the media “to scare us again” and scare “political leaders … so that they shut the cities down so they can get back their control.”
The picture Ochsenbein painted for attendees wasn’t pretty. But the grim details he relayed weren’t from his hospital’s COVID-19 ward. They were from an imaginary conversation with Benjamin Franklin.
“Can you imagine if we could just, like, pop up our Founding Fathers right here?” he asked his audience in Tampa. “Can you imagine telling Benjamin Franklin this?”
The conversation would go something like this, Ochsenbein told the students: “So it turns out we can’t travel freely. We have to get forced injections by the government. Our president has been banned from social media, the town square now, OK? Do you know what he would do if we told him those things? He would pick up the emergency release Constitution.”
The young people laughed.