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Unethical and irresponsible: Rep. Andy Harris stokes fears of the vaccine | COMMENTARY

Maryland Rep. Andy Harris, right, appeared on Newsmax in June to criticize the University of Maryland's COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Maryland Rep. Andy Harris, right, appeared on Newsmax in June to criticize the University of Maryland's COVID-19 vaccine mandate. (Baltimore Sun staff)

Maryland Rep. Andy Harris is a doctor, and a doctor should know better. All medical procedures — including anesthesia, his specialty — come with risks. The vaccines developed to fight the deadly coronavirus come with risks, but in a continuing pandemic that has killed 610,000 people in the United States, the risks in getting the vaccine are far outweighed by its benefits.

Harris knows this.

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And yet, irresponsibily and unethically, he has chosen to stoke fears of the vaccine instead of relieving them with the wise perspective you’d expect from a Johns Hopkins-educated physician.

The latest chapter in the 1st District Republican’s lackluster career starts with Harris’ opposition to mandatory vaccination for more than 200,000 students, faculty and staff of the University System of Maryland.

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In April, USM Chancellor Jay Perman, who’s also a medical doctor, told the Board of Regents that everyone in the system needed to be vaccinated against the coronavirus in order to reopen the state’s 11 campuses safely. “Mandating a [COVID-19] vaccine is a reasonable and necessary means of preventing spread of the disease,” Perman said. “I’ll go one better: Mandating a vaccine is the most effective strategy we have, especially as we try to reach herd immunity. It’s not just one tool in this fight; it’s our best tool [for] our safe return to campus.”

Harris immediately opposed Perman’s order, calling it “coercion.” As a staunch opponent of abortion, Harris fully supports government interference in a woman’s reproductive decisions. But having the government require vaccination to stop the spread of a deadly disease — this he finds abhorrent. Andy Harris apparently thinks the Hippocratic oath requires being a hypocrite.

In June, he refueled his attack, citing reports of an apparent side effect to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. The congressman focused on the tiny percentage of cases of post-vaccine myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) or an associated condition, pericarditis, among young men and adolescents to make his case in the right-wing echo chamber.

Appearing on the pro-Trump Newsmax website, Harris made an apparent reference to Perman as “some education bureaucrat who just wants to avoid liability for the universities.” He asserted, falsely, that the U.S. had reached herd immunity, suggesting that vaccinations among young people, including college students, were neither necessary nor worth the risk.

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Harris went further, claiming without evidence that the U.S. might have 8,000 to 10,000 cases of post-vaccine myocarditis.

At the time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there were only “more than a thousand” reported cases of the condition out of 177 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines. “These reports are rare, given the millions of vaccine doses administered,” the CDC said.

A few weeks later, on July 19, the CDC said it had received 1,148 reports of post-vaccine myocarditis or pericarditis among people 30 and younger, but had confirmed only 674 of them. By then, more than 320 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines had been administered across the country. The agency again called cases of myocarditis rare and the vaccines safe and effective.

“The CDC recommends everyone 12 years and older get vaccinated as soon as possible to help protect against COVID-19 and the related, potentially severe complications that can occur,” the agency said.

None of this seems to matter to Harris. Citing “increased reports of heart inflammation,” he wrote to both Gov. Larry Hogan and Perman to demand that the university system reverse its policy on mandatory vaccinations.

Perman, who had a long career in medicine (pediatric gastroenterology) before moving into university administration, came back with an informed and firm response, telling Harris in polite terms that he was way off base.

The chancellor’s main point: The threat of heart inflammation is “orders of magnitude higher” from the coronavirus than from the vaccines.

“At this point,” Perman wrote Harris on June 28, “the evidence indicates [myocarditis] is far more prevalent among those infected with the disease than among those vaccinated against it.”

Indeed, Perman pointed out, a study of 1,597 collegiate athletes who had contracted COVID-19 showed that one in 300 had symptoms of myocarditis while the CDC caluculated the risk of the condition from the vaccine at 12.6 cases per million doses.

“Protection against COVID is especially vital now, as more contagious and more dangerous variants circulate among unvaccinated populations,” Perman wrote. “Accounting for more than 20% of all new COVID cases in the U.S., the Delta variant is spreading rapidly among young adults and is making them more seriously ill. It is this variant we are most concerned about, given its devastating ability to sicken the very group of people overrepresented on our campuses.

“Current evidence indicates that the [Psfizer and Moderna] vaccines confer significant protection against Delta and other variants. This fact is material to our judgment that vaccination is a critical response to emerging conditions.”

Harris, who boasts that he has helped administer COVID-19 vaccines in his district, has nonetheless played to the skeptics and refuseniks. He made another appearance on Newsmax last week to advise parents of young children to hold off on getting their kids vaccinated, again suggesting that the shots are risky or unnecessary.

Everything in medicine comes with risk, and Harris knows it. In a health crisis, you weigh the risks against not only the personal benefits but the greater good. A doctor hyping risk to score points with a political base already reluctant to get vaccinated as cases rise again — few things are more irresponsible and unethical.

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