DES MOINES — Iowa’s years-long movement against vaccine mandates has grown significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, with several “medical freedom” groups gaining followers and political influence.

Protests against mask mandates and vaccine requirements have become commonplace in Iowa in recent months, with ralliers gathering outside hospitals and in the Capitol rotunda. One of the primary organizers is Informed Choice Iowa, a group that began in 2017 to organize against other vaccine requirements and health mandates.

Archived versions of the group’s Facebook page shows that their influence has grown significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic: the page had about 5,000 likes in late August 2020. The page now has over 9,500 likes, and more than 10,000 users following.

“We were not this vast three years ago when we started,” said group leader Lindsay Maher at the group’s annual conference. “That is a very beautiful and encouraging thing.”

The Informed Conference, an all-day event in Des Moines, drew about 700 attendees last weekend, Vice President Brei Johnson said in a Facebook video, including many visitors from out of state. 

“We had to make a smaller stage this year because we had so many more tables we needed to fit in,” Johnson said, panning the camera to show a packed ballroom at the Holiday Inn in Des Moines.

Other groups organizing against COVID-19 vaccine mandates have seen similar growth. Sonya Swan, leader of Iowans for Informed Consent, said the COVID-19 pandemic caused “a heightened sense of urgency and a growth in partnerships with other organizations.”

“There has not only been growth in IFIC, but with other groups as well over the last 2 years as people continue to seek answers,” Swan wrote in an email to the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

Iowans for Informed Consent is over a decade old, but Swan said the group has done more events and encouraged more people to connect with legislators in the past year than they had previously.

Kari Hartpence, a nurse in the Des Moines metro, started a group in June for health care workers who did not approve of vaccine mandates. Now, Iowans for Medical Freedom — which Hartpence emphasized was not anti-vaccine, but just anti-mandate — is a private Facebook group with 2,400 members. A backup page, Iowans for Medical Freedom 2, has over 500 members.

“And then as it grew, it became apparent that this was not going to stop at health care facilities. They’re going to start mandating for everyone,” Hartpence said. “And so then we had a lot more people want to join.”

National groups have seen similar patterns.

“We saw massive growth, especially on the heels of the announcement of vaccine passports to fly … Literally within four weeks of that announcement, we had 120,000 new people taking action on our platform,” said Leah Wilson, executive director and co-founder of the national Stand for Health Freedom group. 

She said members have been concerned about federal vaccine rules, which some employers started to implement before courts intervened.

“The only thing that our movement is centered around … is that we are the ones that decide how to care for our bodies and how to care for our own children. So that really hasn’t changed,” Wilson said. “It’s just been a massive awakening of people who feel like this issue is now currently in their backyard.”

Groups promote skepticism of medical establishment, other vaccines

Protests against mask and vaccine mandates have become commonplace in Iowa over the past year. Event leaders focus on issues of government overreach, warning of tyranny and socialism, and they emphasize the importance of allowing individuals to choose whether or not they get a vaccine.

But within Facebook pages and in private events, the groups promote a broader skepticism about the safety of vaccines against COVID-19 and other diseases.

Last weekend’s Informed Choice Iowa conference, called “STAND: A Battle For Our Bodies,” included speakers like Dr. Paul Thomas, an Oregon pediatrician who had his license suspended last year for pushing an alternative vaccination schedule. Thomas allegedly encouraged parents not to vaccinate their children against some diseases, promoting unfounded claims that vaccines cause autism. The CDC has found that vaccines do not cause autism.

Another conference guest was Del Bigtree, producer of a film that links autism and vaccines and the host of an anti-vaccination web show. Bigtree has been banned from Facebook and Youtube for spreading disinformation.

Iowans for Informed Consent also promotes Bigtree’s film online, as well as several books that link vaccines to autism and other medical conditions. 

Swan said that hesitation around the COVID-19 vaccine has led some new group members to question vaccines more broadly.

“If anything, the Covid 19 situation has alerted many people to issues with our current scientific methods and conflicts of interest,” Swan wrote.

Informed Choice Iowa leaders did not respond to requests for comment. 

Anthony Newcomb, an Informed Choice Iowa group member who traveled from Cedar Rapids to Des Moines for the Informed Conference, said he had observed several people who support vaccination, including some who received their COVID-19 vaccine, “starting to wake up to the fact that they’ve been duped.”

Newcomb pointed to changing COVID-19 guidance from the Centers for Disease Control — like different mask recommendations and the need for a booster shot — as a vector of mistrust, causing people to doubt the medical establishment more broadly.

“When does the red flag go up?” he asked. “How many boosters do you need?”

The CDC has changed guidance throughout the pandemic as research on COVID-19 and the vaccines has evolved. 

Dr. Ashlesha Kaushik, an Iowa American Academy of Pediatrics board member, said  doctors face an ongoing fight against vaccine misinformation on social media.

“There have been several myths floating around, and we should not emphasize those. We should emphasize that the vaccine is very, very safe and very, very effective,” she said.

Kaushik noted that COVID-19 can have serious symptoms, even in children, and that the benefits of the vaccines far outweigh the risks of side effects. Severe side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine are rare, according to the CDC. 

Kaushik encouraged parents to ask questions of their doctors and their children’s pediatricians about the COVID-19 vaccine and other vaccinations.

“There have been a lot of studies that show that parents have a lot of trust in pediatricians and doctors, and they consider them reliable sources of information,” Kaushik said.  

Activist group leaders acknowledged there was diversity of opinion within their movement on the safety of vaccines.

Hartpence, a leader of Iowans for Medical Freedom, said she decided to vaccinate her children and that her group, which opposes employer COVID-19 vaccine mandates, was “not at all” anti-vax or partisan.

“It’s a big group of people who believe in freedom, specifically medical freedom and the right to do what you want with your body,” Hartpence said.

The national Stand for Health Freedom group concurred.

“We have people from all political parties that take care of their bodies in all different ways,” Wilson said.

Groups demand more from Iowa lawmakers

Iowa legislators passed a bill during the one-day special session to address concerns about employer vaccine mandates. The bill, which was quickly signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds, instructs employers to grant broad waivers to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, essentially allowing an employee to claim a medical exemption without providing the opinion of a medical expert. The bill also allows people to collect unemployment if they are fired for refusing to be vaccinated against COVID.

But members of Informed Choice Iowa, Stand for Health Freedom and other groups say that measure wasn’t enough. They argue that codifying waivers to vaccine mandates gives employers more freedom to introduce the mandates in the first place.

“We would prefer to see anti-discrimination legislation or no mandate legislation instead of something that broadens exemptions and then forces you to disclose your private health information,” Wilson said.

Hartpence organized a small protest of the Polk County GOP Lincoln Dinner on Nov. 12, the night before the Informed Conference. She and a handful of protesters huddled along the side of Fleur Drive, with large American flags snapping in the wind. Hartpence said the first piece of legislation “helped a lot of people,” but that more is needed in the face of federal mandates.

“We need him to protect us from the federal government overreach and help protect our freedoms,” she said of House Speaker Pat Grassley, who spoke at the GOP event inside.

The next day, at the Informed Conference, several Republican lawmakers were in attendance, including Sen. Jim Carlin, Sen. Jeff Shipley and Rep. Jon Jacobsen. 

Jacobsen said lawmakers are already working on the next step in vaccine legislation. He is serving as the chair of a task force, which is meeting weekly ahead of the next legislative session. Lawmakers will reconvene in Des Moines Jan. 10.

“We’re hoping to have a study bill prepared and polished for Chairman (Rep. Bobby) Kaufmann when we hit the ground running the very first day of the Legislature,” he said.

Jacobsen praised the organizers of the conference and said that he hoped to bring in people with “other medical backgrounds” to advise on future vaccine policies.

“Right now, the discussion has tracked toward a certain bias of medicinal approach, and some other very valid and viable voices have not been heard,” Jacobsen said.

Carlin, who was recognized at the conference with a “Defender of Truth” award, said he saw momentum in the group’s growth.

“The truth is on our side in this conversation,” Carlin said in a Facebook Live video. “The further down this path we go, the more momentum we’re going to gain.”

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: info@iowacapitaldispatch.com. Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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