What this Republican Senator doesn't know about Covid-19 is, well, a lot

Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson has made a name for himself as one of the least well-informed elected officials during the nearly two years that the world has been battling the Covid-19 pandemic.

It was Johnson who (in)famously suggested in the spring of 2020 that losing between one and three percent of the American public to Covid-19 was an acceptable outcome in order to keep the economy going. “It’s a risk we accept so we can move about. We don’t shut down our economies because tens of thousands of people die from the common flu,” Johnson said, blithely skating past the fact that if even one percent of Americans died from Covid-19, we would lose more than three million people. (The virus has killed upwards of 830,000 Americans.)
And it was Johnson who suggested — in a virtual town hall late last year — that mouthwash is an effective way to combat Covid-19. “By the way, standard gargle mouthwash, has been proven to kill the coronavirus,” Johnson said, according to a report in Newsweek. “If you get it, you may reduce viral replication. Why not try all these things?”
    Using an oral rinse won’t substantially stop the disease process. The virus will continue to replicate, Dr. Graham Snyder, associate professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, told CNN in 2020.
      Which brings me to a recent radio interview Johnson did with a conservative talk radio host based in Wisconsin. Johnson said a lot of things, but two falsehoods really jumped out at me:
        1. “I not only tested positive, but I tested positive for antibodies at a whopping level. But I didn’t have any symptoms. How do you explain that?”
        Um, well one of the striking features of Covid-19 — and the reason it has spread so far and wide — is that lots and lots of people who have it are entirely asymptomatic. While the percentage of asymptomatic cases of Covid is higher than most other diseases, it’s not unique in infecting people who feel no symptoms.
          As The Atlantic noted last year: “SARS, MERS, influenza, Ebola, dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya, West Nile, Lassa, Japanese encephalitis, Epstein-Barr, and polio can all be deadly in one person but asymptomatic in the next. …Scientists now think that for viruses, a wide range of disease severity is the norm rather than the exception.”
          So, not getting sick even while testing positive for Covid (or a bunch of other diseases) isn’t terribly surprising or all that uncommon — no matter what Johnson thinks.
          2. “Why have we assumed that the body’s natural immune system isn’t the marvel that it actually is…. Why do we think that we can create something better than God in terms of combating disease? There are certain things we have to do, but we have just made so many assumptions, and it’s all pointed toward everybody getting a vaccine.”
          Again, a quick Google search would answer Johnson’s question. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study last fall that showed that people who had already had Covid-19 were five times more likely to be reinfected with it than those people who were fully vaccinated against the virus. Virologist Sabra Klein said last spring that “immunity from natural infection starts to decline after six to eight months. We know that fully vaccinated people still have good immunity after a year — and probably longer.”
            As for Johnson’s suggestion that vaccine proponents are suggesting they can do better than what God did with natural immunity, I would posit this to the religious among us: God created the minds of the epidemiologists, virologists and other experts who helped create the vaccines. So the vaccines are a manifestation of God’s good in the world just as much as our natural immunity is.
            The fact that, almost two years into this pandemic, we still have a US Senator pushing ill-informed theories about the virus and the best way to treat it is flat-out depressing. What’s worse is that plenty of people believe what Johnson believes and won’t be dissuaded by facts.

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