Scientists are tackling a new source of vaccine misinformation: Aaron Rodgers

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NYT > Sports

This spring he auditioned as the moderator for “Jeopardy!”. He appears almost every day in television commercials for national brands like State Farm Insurance. And on Sundays that fall, he led the Green Bay Packers to a 7-2 best in the division.

Not only is quarterback Aaron Rodgers the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player, he’s a celebrity who surpasses the nation’s favorite sport, a household name on par with Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes.

When news broke that he tested positive for the coronavirus last week and was unvaccinated, Rodgers justified his decision not to get vaccinated by speaking out against the highly effective vaccines and a stream of misinformation and junk science spat out. Medical professionals have been discouraged, not only because they are finding it harder to get adults to vaccinate, but also because they also vaccinate 5-11 year olds.

“When you’re a celebrity, you get a platform,” said Dr. Paul A. Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Philadelphia Children’s Hospital. “If you choose to do what Aaron Rodgers does, which is to use the platform to spread misinformation that could lead people to make bad decisions for themselves or their children, then you have done harm. “

The NFL is investigating whether Rodgers and the Packers violated any of the league’s extensive Covid-19 protocols developed with the NFL Players Association. Rodgers admitted violating these protocols, including attending a Halloween party with teammates where he appeared in debunked videos. The Packers and Rodgers could be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for breaking the rules.

Rodgers is in the middle of a 10-day isolation period and didn’t play in the Packers’ 13-7 loss to Kansas City on Sunday. Like all unvaccinated NFL players who have tested positive, Rodgers will have to take two negative tests 24 hours apart after being isolated in order to return to the field, which could be done as early as Saturday.

However, the permanent damage to Rodgers’ demeanor cannot be measured in dollars or games lost or won. Vaccination rates in the NFL are very high compared to the general population. Virtually every coach and employee in the vicinity of players is vaccinated, and 94 percent of the roughly 2,000 players have also been vaccinated, according to the league.

But given the league’s popularity, even the handful of unvaccinated players get oversized attention. Wide receiver Cole Beasley of the Buffalo Bills and quarterbacks Kirk Cousins ​​of the Minnesota Vikings and Carson Wentz of the Indianapolis Colts have all been criticized for choosing to stay unvaccinated.

But they were open about their decisions. Rodgers, on the other hand, avoided answering directly when asked if he was vaccinated. He said he was “immunized”.

In an interview on the Pat McAfee Show last week, Rodgers said he followed his own “vaccination protocol,” although he did not provide any details. But vaccinations and natural infections are the only ways you can gain immunity to the virus, scientists said.

In the interview, Rodgers further fueled the controversy by trying to distance himself from conspiracy theorists. “I’m not, you know, some kind of anti-Vax, flat earth,” he said. “I am someone who is a critical thinker.”

But much of what he said on the show echoes that of people in the anti-vaccine movement.

“Aaron Rodgers is a smart guy,” said David O’Connor, a virologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Packers fanatic. But he added, “He’s still prone to the blind side of misinformation.”

In the interview, Rodgers implied that the fact that people were still developing and dying from Covid-19 meant that the vaccines weren’t very effective.

Although imperfect, the vaccines offer extremely powerful protection against the worst consequences of infection, including hospitalization and death. Unvaccinated Americans are 11 times more likely to be hospitalized and die from Covid-19 than vaccinated Americans, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“As for the people who are hospitalized with Covid, they are mostly unvaccinated,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Organization. “And the transmission is mainly driven from unvaccinated people to other unvaccinated people.”

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Rodgers also raised concerns that the vaccines could cause fertility problems, a common talking point in the anti-vaccine movement. There is no evidence that the vaccines affect fertility in men or women.

“These allegations have been made since the vaccines first came on the market and they have clearly been raised many, many times,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a vaccines expert at Vanderbilt University. He added, “The vaccines are safe and amazingly effective.”

There are some potentially serious side effects that have been linked with the vaccines, including a bleeding disorder and myocarditis, but these are very rare. Experts agree that the health risks associated with Covid-19 far outweigh those of vaccination.

Rodgers said he ruled out the mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna because he was allergic to an unspecified ingredient they contained.

Such allergies are possible – a small number of people are allergic to polyethylene glycol, which is found in Pfizer and Moderna vaccines – but extremely rare. For example, according to a CDC study, for every million doses of the Pfizer vaccine administered, there were about 11 cases of anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction.

The health agency recommends people with a known allergy to an ingredient in any of the mRNA vaccines not to receive those vaccines, but some scientists were skeptical that Rodgers really had a known, documented allergy. Even if he did, he might be eligible for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is based on a different technology.

Rodgers also took aim at the NFL, almost daring to punish the league. For example, he claimed that the league had sent a “henchman” to the Packers’ training camp to “shame” the players into getting vaccinated. He said he did not follow some protocols, such as wearing a mask when talking to reporters, because he did not agree to them.

Like many star athletes, Rodgers worked hard to craft his own narrative. But that can come at a price, as the pushback to his comments showed.

“The challenge for players now is to make it so easy for them to go on podcasts and tweet,” said Brad Shear, an attorney who advises NFL players on technology and social media. “I tell the players to stick with the script, have notes on hand, and if you get a tough question, distract them. His interview was like a car accident that got worse and worse. “

While the league does not have a timeline for completing its investigation, the setback has been quick. Prevea Health, a family doctor in Wisconsin, ended its partnership with Rodgers the day after his interview was published. State Farm, which Rodgers has employed as a spokesman for years, said it did not endorse some of the statements Rodgers made (without specifying which ones), but instead respected “every right to choose.”

On Sunday, only 1.5 percent of all televised State Farm ads included Rodgers, compared to about 25 percent on the previous two Sundays, according to data collected by Apex Marketing, which monitors and tracks national media and branding.

Television commentators, including Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw, also called on Rodgers for potentially putting his teammates at risk and not being honest. Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went one step further. “Aaron Rodgers not only lied, he harmed professional sports,” he wrote.

Rodgers are no stranger to controversy. For much of his 17-year NFL, he’s built an image for himself as a contrarian on a number of topics. In late April, ESPN reported that Rodgers was so “upset” with the Packers that he told members of the team that he did not want to return to Green Bay. The team’s general manager, Brian Gutekunst, who was busy preparing the design, had to publicly declare that Rodgers would not be traded.

Rodgers also used his calculated disruption talent in 2020 when he tried to convince other players to vote against a proposed employment contract as it included a way to add a 17th game to the regular season. (The players narrowly agreed to the agreement.)

Rodgers made headlines not just because he’s an elite quarterback, but because he’s an elite quarterback in the most popular sports league in the country. Any topic is magnified when the NFL is involved, be it bullying, domestic violence, protests during the national anthem, and other topics. This is why Rodgers’ attitude towards vaccines has caused so much concern among scientists.

Dr. O’Connor said that he “winced” when he heard that Rodgers hadn’t been vaccinated, especially given the many people in Wisconsin who have not yet had their vaccinations; 63 percent of the state’s residents received at least one dose of vaccine, compared to a statewide rate of 67 percent.

“There is still a lot of work to be done within the community he plays in to improve vaccine uptake,” he said.

The timing of the infant vaccination campaign is particularly unfortunate, said Dr. Conductor.

“He’s such a highly regarded and admired sports figure,” he said of Rodgers. “We would like to see a clear role model there in order to receive the vaccine, and we certainly do not want a role model for ambiguous behavior.”

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