Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) baselessly claimed this week that unvaccinated individuals are “basically” being put in “internment camps” abroad, downplaying the risk of an unvaccinated population in the face of the new, seemingly highly transmissible, omicron coronavirus variant.
Johnson, who frequents talk radio shows in his home state of Wisconsin to fear-monger about COVID-19 vaccines, said it’s not “irrational” to forgo a coronavirus vaccine, basing his arguments on outdated, incomplete and often misleading data on death rates and vaccine side effects.
“We are demonizing [unvaccinated] people,” Johnson said in an interview with Janesville-based radio station WCLO Tuesday. “Around the world, they’re putting them basically into internment camps.”
Johnson went on to say that government officials and the media are suppressing and censoring the “truth” about the COVID-19 vaccines.
According to his staff, Johnson was referring to Australia — namely, the country’s strict travel quarantine rules — when comparing the treatment of the unvaccinated to the U.S. incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
To be clear, Australia isn’t interning the unvaccinated. But the accusation does track with something conservative activist Charlie Kirk has also falsely claimed. In reality, Australia has quarantine facilities for travelers returning from high-risk countries, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated, and has had strict quarantine rules throughout the pandemic.
Johnson has a long history of spreading dangerous conspiracy theories and misinformation about COVID-19. He has pushed the use of unproven and potentially dangerous coronavirus treatments like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine despite federal warnings against them, and has falsely stated that vaccinated people may spread the virus more than unvaccinated people.
More than 780,000 people in the U.S. have died of the coronavirus, and the threat of a new, more transmissible variant has medical officials pushing Americans to get vaccines. In a glimmer of good news, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said this week it’s possible that omicron is less deadly than the delta variant.
“I have never downplayed the tragedy and severity that is COVID,” Johnson told WCLO. “My point has been that I am concerned about public health officials, the media and social media creating a state of fear so they can maintain a level of control over the population.”
Johnson has, however, downplayed the severity of COVD-19 and spread misinformation about the effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines. He has repeated a Donald Trump line that the “cure has been worse than the disease,” disputing the effectiveness of mask-wearing and social distancing.
During the interview, the senator wrongly claimed the delta variant was less severe than past coronavirus variants, which is not supported by the numbers.
The United States saw more COVID-19 deaths in 2021 than in 2020, in large part because of the highly transmissible delta variant that ravaged states with low vaccination rates. The delta variant was less severe for those who were vaccinated, however.
The kind of misinformation Johnson is spreading is actually killing people. An NPR analysis of deaths per 100,000 people in roughly 3,000 U.S. counties found that, as of May this year, counties that voted for Trump in 2020 by more than 60% had roughly three times the death rate of counties that voted for President Joe Biden.
Republican politicians across the U.S. have made it part of their platforms to resist the Biden administration’s efforts to increase vaccination levels. This week, Republicans are pushing a vote in the Senate to undo the administration’s regulation for large private companies to require weekly COVID-19 tests or vaccinations. One Democrat, the conservative Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is expected to join Republicans in that vote.
Conservatives are also fighting federal vaccine mandates in the courts.
Johnson’s comments have caught the attention of Wisconsin Democrats who see his seat as a possible gain in the 2022 midterm elections. The senator has recently hinted he will be running for reelection but has yet to make any announcements.
The Wisconsin Democratic Party declined a request for comment.