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Ky. Senate GOP backtracks after citing retracted COVID paper to support ban on vaccine mandates

Senator Lindsey Tichenor, a Republican from Smithfield, answers questions during a press conference.
LRC Public Information
The Senate GOP originally sent out the news release to highlight the Senate’s approval of Senate Bill 295, which would bar any COVID-19 vaccine from being required for someone to enroll in school, to work for an employer, to obtain a professional license, or to receive a health care service.

Research shows COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. But Kentucky Senate Republicans falsely suggested they aren’t while promoting a ban on vaccine mandates this week.

Since the pandemic began, some Republican Kentucky lawmakers have repeated common misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines that greatly reduce people’s risk of getting seriously sick or dying from it.

This week, that happened again when Republican state Sen. Lindsey Tichenor of Smithfield said — inaccurately — that the vaccines are ineffective and dangerous during a public debate in the Kentucky Legislature, and again in a news release sent by the Senate Republican caucus.

That news release originally cited two medical journal articles — one retracted and the other disputed by doctors with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — to support a bill Tichenor sponsored that would bar employers and schools from requiring workers and students to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The Senate approved the legislation, Senate Bill 295, Tuesday in a 25-11 vote. Most Republican senators voted in favor of it, but four voted against it, as did all Democratic senators.

The Senate GOP caucus backtracked on the inclusion of the retracted and disputed reports Wednesday after an inquiry from LPM News. An updated version of the news release removed both reports but kept other misinformation in.

What happened with the Senate GOP news release

The original news release sent out Tuesday by the Senate Republican caucus linked to three reports that they claimed supported the need for SB 295.

Near the top of one of those reports are two notices that say it was retracted by the medical journal that published it.

Another paper cited in the news release was disputed by professionals with the CDC.

The third link led to a fact sheet for health care providers regarding a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. It’s available on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s website and includes information on the vaccine and related clinical studies.

LPM contacted the Republican caucus’ communications team about the inclusion of the retracted and disputed papers Wednesday morning. A few hours later, the caucus sent out an updated version of the news release that removed all three reports.

It included a notice at the top of the announcement that read, “The previous version of this press release cited studies that have since been redacted. This source should have been removed from this updated release.”

A wide body of research conducted since COVID-19 vaccines were developed in 2020 confirms they are safe and effective, and it shows significant side effects rarely happen.

Yet the retracted report initially cited in the GOP’s news release claimed otherwise and suggested governments should “endorse a global moratorium” on the vaccines.

The authors of the article include people who repeatedly have spread misinformation about vaccines. A medical journal published the paper in January and then retracted it in late February “due to the concerns with the validity of some of the cited references that support the conclusions and a misrepresentation of the cited references and available data.”

Tichenor called the inclusion of the retracted paper in the news release a “simple error” in a statement to LPM. But she also cast doubt on the journal’s given reasons for retracting the paper and said the authors are filing a lawsuit for unethical retraction.

“Considering the amount of censorship imposed on those who questioned the narrative during the past four years, I am not surprised to see this study retracted,” she said. “While the source data has been retracted, I believe it has been done so because the report may include evidence to support the concerns of countless people.”

Tichenor did not specifically address the news release’s initial inclusion of another article, published in 2022 by a different medical journal, that doctors with the CDC criticized.

That article concerned the deaths of two teenage boys soon after they received a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Several professionals with the CDC disputed the article in a letter to the editor.

They cited the CDC’s own evaluations, including its determination that one of the patients died of a bacterial infection — a conclusion with which the original article’s authors disagreed.

While the Senate GOP’s updated news release no longer included that disputed article or the retracted paper, it still included a quote from Tichenor in which she falsely calls COVID-19 vaccines “ineffective and dangerous.”

The original and updated Senate GOP news releases also reference data from the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS.

Anybody can report an adverse event to the system, but such reports aren’t proof that a health problem was caused by a vaccine, according to the CDC. VAERS is an “early warning system” that could lead to further investigation by the CDC and FDA.

Some people have used VAERS data to fuel misinformation about the vaccines’ safety during the pandemic.

Tichenor cited VAERS data while making inaccurate claims about the COVID-19 vaccines during a Tuesday debate in the Kentucky Senate.

Senators pass Tichenor’s vaccine mandate bill

The reason the Senate GOP originally sent out Tuesday’s news release was to highlight the Senate’s approval of SB 295, of which Tichenor is the lead sponsor.

The bill would bar any COVID-19 vaccine from being required for someone to enroll in school, to work for an employer, to obtain a professional license, or to receive a health care service.

Students in Kentucky aren’t required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 to go to school. Major medical providers, including Norton Healthcare, required COVID-19 vaccines for workers earlier in the pandemic but dropped them after the federal government ended its vaccine mandate for various health care facilities last year.

Past ethics guidance on the American Medical Association’s website reads, “In general, no, a physician should not refuse a patient simply because the individual is not vaccinated or declines to be vaccinated.”

During Tuesday’s debate and vote on SB 295, multiple Republican senators publicly cast doubt on the vaccines’ efficacy and safety, despite the established research showing they are safe and effective.

Proponents of the bill also said it supports personal freedom.

A few Republican and Democratic senators spoke against the bill, raising concerns about how it would affect elderly or otherwise vulnerable patients at nursing homes or other health care facilities. They also argued against restricting businesses’ freedom to impose a vaccine requirement on workers.

SB 295 still needs approval from the House. And it's late enough in the legislative session that it could be vulnerable to a veto by Gov. Andy Beshear.

This story was updated.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Morgan is LPM's health & environment reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.

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