'I'm just seeking the truth': Senator on Kansas anti-mandate panel questions COVID vaccine safety

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, waves paper during a Senate Republican caucus at the Statehouse. Thompson is one of the members of a new committee on COVID-19 mandates.

Kansas legislators are setting up a new anti-mandate committee, and one of the Republican senators is targeting COVID-19 vaccines and masking in schools.

"I'm absolutely not sure it's safe," Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, said of the COVID-19 vaccines.

Thompson is one of 11 legislators on the Special Joint Committee on Government Overreach and the Impact of COVID-19 Mandates. Republican leadership announced their eight appointees on Monday. Democrats haven't appointed their three members.

"It would be one thing if we knew this thing absolutely worked, and there was no adverse reaction," Thompson told reporters Tuesday at the Statehouse. "But that's not the case right now, and so mandating something that they know there are problems with is a big problem for me."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.

Thompson declined to say whether he is vaccinated and whether he thinks other people should get vaccinated.

"This is not a true vaccine," Thompson said. "It's not an attenuated or weakened version of the virus itself. This is a a genetically engineered vaccine, that some doctors I've talked to have told me that this is introducing basically an autoimmune disease into your body. There's a lot of people in the medical field who are refusing to get this vaccine, because they know that this thing is dangerous.

"So why should we mandate something that there's many questions left out there?"

More:Kansas doctors fear future fall COVID surge as masks come off after high case counts in September

President Joe Biden on Sept. 9 announced vaccine mandates plans for federal employees and contractors, health care workers and establishments with 100 or more employees. He said the requirements would decrease hospitalizations and deaths, make school safer and help the economy.

"What makes it incredibly more frustrating," Biden said of the current pandemic surge, "is that we have the tools to combat COVID-19, and a distinct minority of Americans — supported by a distinct minority of elected officials — are keeping us from turning the corner. These pandemic politics, as I refer to, are making people sick, causing unvaccinated people to die.

"We cannot allow these actions to stand in the way of protecting the large majority of Americans who have done their part and want to get back to life as normal."

Kansas Republicans have balked at the proposed mandates but have struggled to find a state-level solution. That's why the Legislative Coordinating Council formed the special committee.

"What I would want to see is understanding why these mandates are even necessary, and how can we stop them?" Thompson said of his goal for the committee.

In September, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 38,131 new COVID-19 cases, 1,120 new hospitalizations and 487 new deaths. Children comprised 11,394 of the cases, 44 of the hospitalizations and one death.

Despite the surge in recent months, Thompson said he doesn't understand why Biden believes mandates are needed.

"If he (Biden) believes that the vaccines are working," Thompson said, "and somebody decides they want to have a vaccine, why would you worry if somebody else decides not to have the vaccine? If vaccine works, then you're protected, correct?"

Thompson brushed aside concerns about immunocompromised people and young children who aren't yet eligible for vaccination.

"In the past, prior to all this craziness, we've always treated society as those who are vulnerable can decide how to protect themselves," he said. "The vaccines are available, if somebody wants to get a vaccine, we're not restricting them from getting vaccine. We're just saying those folks who don't want to get it because they have concerns should not be forced to do so or lose their job."

Special committee formed

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, and Speaker of the House Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, announced the committee scope and Republican membership on Monday.

The committee is tasked, "To review and examine potentially unconstitutional federal mandates including but not limited to employer vaccine mandates, federal contractor vaccine mandates, healthcare workers vaccine mandates, masking, and mandates requiring proof of vaccination status. To provide recommendations for constitutionally proper responses to the mandates that would preserve local control, state autonomy, and ensure adequate safeguards for the freedom of all Kansans."

The committee will be chaired by Sen. Renee Erickson, R-Wichita, with Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, as vice chair. Other members include Masterson; Thompson; Sen. Kellie Warren, R-Leawood; Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene; Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston; and Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell.

Senate Democrats get one appointment and House Democrats get two.

"The federal government is exceeding its authority and we have a duty to sound the alarm on it," Ryckman said in a statement. "This committee is entrusted to explore all the options we have for pushing back in order to protect Kansans and their businesses from an unconstitutional overreach."

More:Mask mandate divides Holton: Parents transfer children, taunt school board member before BOE changes course

Masterson said that Kansans are "understandably upset" about government mandates and Biden's plans are a "blatant attempt to circumvent the United States Constitution."

"Kansans impacted by these mandates expect us to take real action in defense of their liberty and freedom, and this special joint committee is a necessary and critical step in that process," he said. "It will allow us to hear directly from those hurt by mandates and then propose solutions to address them."

The committee hasn't scheduled its first meeting.

Thompson said it should discuss local mask mandates.

"Look at these kids who are in school having to wear the masks," Thompson said. "We know there are adverse effects from that as well, not only from a physical, but also social and emotional standpoint. So there are a lot of parents who are begging school boards to rescind those mask mandates."

Special session unlikely to happen

Some Republicans, including Thompson, have called for a special session of the Legislature. They proposed a start date of Oct. 18.

"I don't think that's going to happen, unfortunately," Thompson said.

One reason is that without the governor's support, the Legislature needs to two-thirds majorities to call a special session. Thompson said they are "well short" of the needed legislators.

"I think there might be something happens within this committee that might help encourage other members of the legislature to see the need," he said.

It is unclear what the committee and state government can do to challenge the president. Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, has threatened to sue the federal government, but Biden's promised vaccine mandates have not been formally issued. The president has not announced a timetable.

More:St. Francis hospital in Topeka adopts vaccine requirement; Stormont Vail's mandate not to blame for shortage

"The problem is, in the interim, a lot of places are now mandating vaccines or people will lose their jobs," Thompson said. "So the concern is that we're going to further harm the workforce in Kansas. There are people who are going to quit rather than get the vaccine or are going to be fired as a result of the mandate."

Labor shortages could affect access to health care, he said, as some nurses consider quitting instead of getting vaccinated. Masterson, the senate president, previously led a failed effort to block hospitals with vaccine mandates from sharing in a $50 million pool of money for nurse bonuses.

He said the committee needs to look into constitutional and statutory questions on private businesses and hospitals that are already mandating vaccines.

Under federal law, employers are generally allowed to mandate vaccinations for all employees, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

COVID-19 misinformation?

Thompson declined to say whether he considers himself anti-vax, a skeptic of COVID-19 vaccines or opposed to mandates.

"I'm just seeking the truth," he said.

The senator has often pointed to reports of adverse reactions, including deaths, as a sign that COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe. In one such Facebook post, he claimed the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System data "has been totally ignored."

Serious adverse events after vaccination are rare, according to the CDC, and not all reports of adverse reactions necessarily mean a vaccine caused the health problem.

"A review of available clinical information, including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records, has not established a causal link to COVID-19 vaccines," the CDC reports.

Similar anti-vax claims about vaccine-related deaths are misinformation, the University of Missouri Health Care has reported.

More:Blood drives will be held in coming weeks at these 5 Topeka locations amid blood, platelet shortage

"As with most misinformation, these statements get traction because they start with a kernel of truth — in this case raw data from a reputable source," the health system reported.

Thompson has been accused of spreading misinformation before, but he remains undeterred.

"It doesn't affect me at all, I like to get the truth out," Thompson said. "We're swimming uphill, fighting an uphill battle, on this information. And just because somebody can say, 'hey, this guy's spreading misinformation' doesn't mean it's so. I've actually done a lot of homework on this. I've talked to doctors. I've done a lot of research on this on this vaccine."

In a series of Facebook posts, Thompson has questioned the safety of the vaccines, the emergency use authorizations and called the mandates "morally indefensible and illegal."

He has said that "facts fly in the face" of Biden's statement that this is a "pandemic of the unvaccinated," though hospitalization numbers consistently show the vast majority of COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated

He has claimed that "the efficacy of the vaccine is far less robust than natural immunity," despite the CDC reporting that research shows vaccines offer better protection.

Safety and efficacy of the COVID vaccine

"COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective," the CDC reports. "COVID-19 vaccines were evaluated in tens of thousands of participants in clinical trials. The vaccines met the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) rigorous scientific standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality needed to support approval or authorization of a vaccine.

"Millions of people in the United States have received COVID-19 vaccines since they were authorized for emergency use by FDA. These vaccines have undergone and will continue to undergo the most intensive safety monitoring in U.S. history."

Nevertheless, Thompson questioned the efficacy and safety of the vaccine.

"I think we have to look at the safety of this vaccine versus what the real risk of COVID is, and we know for a fact it's a 99.7% recovery rate from COVID in the general population," he said. "... Among kids, it's virtually 100%. Unless these kids have comorbidities, they are not dying from this disease."

That's not quite accurate, at least in Kansas. The KDHE on Monday reported 6,071 deaths out of 413,119 cases so far, or about 1.5% of infected individuals have died.

More:'You're gonna have to ... put some pressure on these people': Kansas school COVID cluster turns deadly

Three children have died out of more than 60,000 pediatric cases, including a middle school student last month. No information is available on whether the children had underlying health conditions.

Nathan Bahr, an infectious disease physician at The University of Kansas Health System, urged people to protect themselves and those around them.

"One thing that you hear quoted a lot is there's X percentage chance that you're not going die," Bahr said during a Tuesday media briefing. "That’s true, but there are very bad things that aren’t death.

"If you’re in the ICU for a month and you live, obviously we’re really excited you live, but that’s a long road to recovery after that. What we’re seeing is people that were 28-year-old triathletes who can hardly walk across the room now a year later. That’s awful, and that’s something we want to prevent. That's why we're pushing vaccines."