ATLANTA — Toney Hicks, 78, almost became part of last winter’s death toll when he contracted COVID-19 with double pneumonia and spent a week in intensive care. That was four months ago, and now that he’s recovered, his family has been urging him to get vaccinated.

But despite the risks and his underlying conditions of irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure, Hicks has been holding off. Mostly, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, because of advice from his chiropractor.

On Facebook, his chiropractor Josh Paxton, who has an office in Catoosa County near the Tennessee border, has repeatedly claimed that the COVID vaccines can have frightening side effects, despite their stellar overall safety record. In January, Paxton reposted a video of a woman experiencing convulsions who blames the Moderna vaccine, an unsubstantiated claim. “Run from this untested medical EXPERIMENT,” the chiropractor wrote in his post.

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In April he reposted photos of a severe skin rash covering a person’s torso, again blamed on Moderna. “I wonder what’s happening to the internal organs if the skin reacted like this?” Paxton wrote.

Hicks told his chiropractor in a Facebook comment thread that his daughter and son-in-law work in health care and say he should take the shots. “My general practitioner says I should,” Hicks added. “What do you think?”

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“We are being lied to. All of us,” Paxton responded. “Let’s discuss this on your next visit. Much needs to be considered before you make any decisions.”

Paxton is among several Georgia chiropractors identified by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who are warning people against getting vaccinated, as the national drive to reach herd immunity has been stalling and demand for shots tapers off. Through social media and other forums, the chiropractors have shared debunked conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated claims, the kind of misinformation that U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called a “clear and present danger” for those still unprotected.

This can be damaging to patients who look to those chiropractors for medical advice without being aware that they are not trained as immunologists or on giving advice about vaccines.

It’s not all chiropractors railing against vaccines — likely, only a minority. The issue has particular relevance to Georgia, though, because Life University, the nation’s largest chiropractic school, is based here, and some chiropractors associated with the school are questioning COVID vaccines, if not openly discouraging them.

That’s not the stance of the American Chiropractic Association, which recommends chiropractors follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and their state governments. It also notes that for most chiropractors in the U.S., vaccines are outside their scope of practice. In Georgia, they aren’t allowed to puncture the skin or prescribe medications.

Bobby Maybee, president of the Forward Thinking Chiropractic Alliance, a network of about 10,000 chiropractors worldwide who say they promote science-based treatment, called advising an elderly patient against taking a COVID vaccine “unconscionable.”

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“In cases like this, even affecting one person is not appropriate at all,” he said. “The ‘first do no harm’ applies to every health-care provider. That’s just a situation that’s irresponsible altogether.”

Andy Krantz, a Cobb County chiropractor and president of the Georgia Board of Chiropractic Examiners, said chiropractors should be educating with science.

“To tell someone, just one sided, that the inoculation is bad, doesn’t work, unnecessary and harmful, without presenting the other part — how effective it’s been, numbers don’t lie — that would not be good education,” Krantz said.

Critics of chiropractic say Georgia is a hotbed for practitioners who discourage vaccines because of the influence of Marietta-based Life University, which promotes spinal adjustments and healthy living as the best protection against disease.

Paxton, the Catoosa County chiropractor, is a Life alumnus, as are many other Georgia chiropractors assailing the COVID vaccine on social media. Paxton said he has never explicitly told a patient not to take the vaccine, but he believes bad reactions are being downplayed.

“I want people to consider that maybe there’s more to the story, and to dig a little bit,” Paxton said. “I believe that there’s a lack of transparency.”

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Not everyone at Life is spreading such vaccine fears. Krantz, for example, has taught there for 45 years. And Life holds no official position on whether people should take vaccines.

However, the school often indulges anti-vax views in its communications to its 2,700 students and choices of guest speakers.

“Life University is among I would say the worst of the worst when it comes to schools that teach these types of pseudosciences,” said Ryan Armstrong, who monitors the North American industry as executive director of Bad Science Watch, a nonprofit in Ontario. “And particularly when it comes to anti-medical beliefs, it’s very much a hotbed for that as well.”

True disbelievers

In the chiropractors’ arguments against the COVID vaccines, emphasis is placed on the relatively quick rollout, anecdotal stories of severe reactions and the prospect of airlines, sports venues and schools requiring proof of vaccinations — effectively making the shots mandatory, in their view.

They commonly claim that the vaccines are being given without informed consent because the medical community is hiding information about serious side effects.

In March, Life University’s vice president of university advancement, Gilles Lamarche, posted a link on Facebook to a story about a purported death after an allergic reaction to a vaccine, published by the anti-vaccine activist group Children’s Health Defense. “My position on any medical procedure is that consent must be obtained and complete information must be provided for consent to be fully informed,” Lamarche wrote.

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In a now-deleted post, former Life University president and chancellor Guy Riekeman, who’s credited with turning the school around after it lost accreditation in 2002, made the claim that COVID-19 itself isn’t proven to be real.

“Whether you believe (the vaccine) works, and that’s a BIG IF; or that it causes genetic mutation, which it does, we just don’t know the effects of altering the species gene pool, yet; or if there even is a covid virus, which scientists have not yet been able to document,” he wrote.

The genetic material in COVID vaccines has no ability to alter a person’s DNA, according to the CDC and other experts who have debunked the claim.

In an April post on Facebook, chiropractor Marwyn Bhanderi, a Life University alumnus who hosts a podcast called Back 2 Being, urged followers who hadn’t received the vaccines to wait. “Every week I see patients who had adverse reactions to it,” he said. “And we don’t know the long-term effects of this experimental injection, this is just the start.”

Marietta chiropractor Eric Plasker was a featured speaker at a March protest outside the CDC, organized by the nonprofit I Do Not Comply. On his social media page, Plasker regularly criticizes mask requirements and shares accounts of deaths reported in the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, VAERS.

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In one case he shared a purported story of a 32-year-old man suffering seizures and dying of a heart attack after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and wrote, “No evidence of immunity. Lots of evidence of tragedies like this.”

Plasker, one of the few chiropractors contacted for this story to return calls or agree to talk about his position, disputed any implication that chiropractors are more opposed to COVID vaccines than some members of other health professions.

Plasker said he believes adverse reactions to the COVID vaccines are being underreported in VAERS, saying he has had patients complain to him of malaise, anxiety and insomnia after getting shots.

“I am a very compassionate man,” he said. “My passion comes from seeing people who are injured, who did what the CDC told them to do, who were mandated, didn’t think they had a choice, and then were abandoned.”

But Plasker said he would never directly advise a patient not to take a vaccine, only to “do your homework” and “look at both sides.”

“Where there is a risk there must be a choice,” he said.

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Why assail vaccines?

David Gorski, a surgical oncologist and the managing editor of the website Science-Based Medicine, said COVID vaccine naysayers are recycling tropes that anti-vaxxers have been using for years.

“I have a name for what they’re talking about. It’s not informed consent. I call it misinformed refusal,” Gorski said. “They want you to refuse the vaccine based on their mistaken, misinformed beliefs, or what they attribute to the vaccine.”

For example, he notes that accounts of deaths or bad reactions can be entered in VAERS by anyone, but the database can’t determine if the vaccine was the cause.

Even so, the 4,600-plus reported deaths represent 0.0017 percent of doses administered. The CDC investigates reported deaths and has found that only three in the U.S. have possible links to vaccines. The three involve the blood clotting issue that led to a temporary pause in administration of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“Here’s what you’ve got to look at,” Gorski said. “Is it higher than what would be expected if there were no vaccines, but you were reporting just on deaths in the population? The answer is probably no, but the FDA is still investigating.”

Certain chiropractors have aligned themselves with the anti-vaccination movement to promote their form of “natural healing” above conventional medicine, Gorski said.

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Such beliefs trace back to the founder of chiropractic, D.D. Palmer, who postulated in the late 19th century that most diseases and maladies are caused by spinal or joint misalignments, and therefore chiropractic adjustments can boost health. Life University still embraces this concept of “vertebral subluxation,” though there is no scientific basis for it. During the height of the pandemic, the school’s guidance for faculty and students on how to prevent getting coronavirus included, “Get your spine checked and adjusted regularly to ensure your nerve system is able to optimally adapt to these external stressors.”

Life has also had as a guest speaker Andrew Wakefield — a former British physician turned anti-vaccine activist who was struck off the medical register for his involvement in a discredited study that linked autism to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. This year, Life sponsored continuing education classes at an event called “Vax-Con ’21: The Uncensored Truth,” held in Wisconsin.

In January, an internal memo to faculty and staff said the school would not participate as a point of distribution for COVID vaccines, with the next paragraph saying, “It is the position of Life University that informed consent is an ethical principle in all health practices, and by definition, it implies a choice. Since all medical procedures, including vaccinations, have the potential to cause injury, informed consent is an ethical imperative.”

University President Rob Scott said that memo was addressing two different issues that had come up on campus: Whether employees could get vaccines on campus, which it opted against because of the logistics; and whether the school would ever require students show proof of vaccination to attend, which it won’t.

On the guidance to students about spinal adjustments to prevent COVID, Scott said the disease has been most devastating for people with comorbidities, and chiropractors believe they can have a positive impact on overall health.

“It’s not that it’s going be effective in COVID-19,” the president said. “It’s just, if you can be healthier overall going into a pandemic, then it might have an effect on the fatalities and comorbidities associated with that pandemic.”

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Some students at Life, though, have picked up the message that vaccines are a dangerous fraud. “The media outlets aggressively pushing for mass vaccination are complicit in these crimes against humanity!” one student posted this month.

Rafael Fonseca, who graduated from Life in March, said he had professors last year telling students they didn’t have to wear masks. Throughout his education there, professors would spend inordinate amounts of time talking about vaccine side effects, he said.

“The philosophy of the school leads people to be anti-vaxxers and not get vaccinated,” said Fonseca, who intends to be an evidence-based chiropractor. “The way they see it, it’s not something natural.”

Forward thinkers

Chiropractors who embrace 21st century science say such subject matters are way beyond their scope. Chandler Turnipseed, who practices in Johns Creek, said chiropractic can treat neuromusculoskeletal disorders and help with pain and range of motion, in combination with exercise and stretching. He said all he tells patients about the COVID shots is his own experiences.

“If someone asks me about the COVID vaccine, I tell them I’ve been vaccinated,” he said. “I can offer them guidelines from experts, because I’m not an expert in vaccines.”

Toney Hicks, the 78-year-old grappling with whether to get vaccinated, met with chiropractor Josh Paxton earlier this month to discuss it. He said Paxton spoke against it, telling him that taking the shot would make him part of an experiment.

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Paxton told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the vaccines are experimental in his mind, because they only have FDA emergency authorization, not full approval. He insisted that he gave Hicks both sides of the argument on the vaccine.

Hicks said he was ultimately swayed by the fact that most health care professionals have chosen to take it. He said he plans to make an appointment for a COVID shot.

“I feel like I would be safe in taking it,” he said. “From what they’ve told me and from what I’ve read, I don’t see where the outcome is any different than a flu shot.”

Johnny Edwards writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Story Filed By Cox Newspapers. For Use By Clients of the New York Times News Service