WI Capitol Building 101921 01-10192021130400 (copy) (copy) (copy)

At a recent state Senate hearing, Republicans Sen. Mary Felzkowski and Rep. Treig Pronschinske took the opportunity to discredit vaccines and ridicule efforts to address the pandemic. 

Last week, during a public hearing on legislation that would prohibit Wisconsin business owners from seeking proof of vaccination before allowing people who are potentially infected with COVID from entering their stores or restaurants, Republican legislators spread the virus of misinformation.

Joining a national push to block vaccine mandates that are intended to protect the health and safety of business owners, their workers and customers, Republican members of the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate have been promoting a package of bills that seek to take away the right of business owners to operate responsibly in the midst of a surging pandemic.

The bills are wrongheaded on their face.

But the arguments that Republican legislators made for them took last Wednesday’s session of the Senate Committee on Health to the intersection where ignorance and misinformation meet.

The Jan. 12 hearing by the Senate Committee on Health included at least four different Republican-sponsored bills disallowing business vaccine mandates. The Wisconsin bills are part of a nationwide trend of state bills that would nullify vaccine mandates.

State Sen. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, used the term "experimental drug" to describe various vaccines that have been widely researched, widely tested and widely distributed. As Wisconsin Public Radio reminded listeners after recounting Felzkowski’s rant, “Reuters, in a fact check last year, found that claims about the vaccines being experimental were not true. All COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the United States have also been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration.”

Felzkowski’s false premises were dangerous, as they encourage skepticism about vaccines at a time when the omicron variant is sweeping across Wisconsin and unvaccinated people are contributing to a crisis that threatens to overwhelm many of the state’s hospitals.

Despite Felzkowski’s best efforts, however, the insurance agent from Irma didn't utter the most absurd statement from a Republican legislator.

That dishonor went to Wisconsin state Rep. Treig Pronschinske, who during the Jan. 12 public hearing delivered a statement that jettisoned any regard for science.

The western Wisconsin Republican claimed that the virus can’t be stopped because it can’t be seen.

“If you can’t see the virus, if you can’t see anything, how are you going to do it? How can you stop it? How?” Pronschinske ranted. “You physically cannot see the virus, you don’t know if it is in this room or if it’s outside. Or if it even exists right now in here. You have no clue. How are you going to stop that?”

It is true, as USA Today pointed out in a recent fact-check column, “Viruses cannot be seen with optical magnifying microscopes, which go up to 1,000 times magnification, and can be imaged only by electron microscopes. At 25 times magnification, one wouldn’t be able to see cells, which are considerably bigger than viruses.”

But that doesn’t mean you cannot do anything about viruses. Throughout history, scientists and doctors have successfully battled viruses and infections that cannot be seen. To suggest, as Pronschinske does, that it is hard to combat a virus that we cannot see is not just absurd, it is damaging to the struggle to get ahead of the pandemic.

False premises, lies, misinformation and deliberate appeals to ignorance need to be called out.

State Sen. Melissa Agard recognizes that. The Madison Democrat pushed back against the absurdity of statements made in last week’s health committee hearing

“The testimony being heard today in the Senate Committee on Health is dangerous and continues to perpetuate false narratives about COVID,” she said on Jan. 12. “Our neighbors and loved ones are dying. We need to put the falsehoods to bed and listen to our medical experts to best protect ourselves, our neighbors, and our medical professionals.”

In a Republican-controlled Legislature that so frequently goes off the rails — especially on issues of public health and safety — it is easy to become frustrated. But Agard refuses to give up on the fight for science, common sense and the truth.

“As we near the two year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic and cases are skyrocketing, Republicans are still promoting and peddling misinformation that contradicts scientists and medical professionals. We, as a state, have to do better in order to best protect ourselves and those who are most vulnerable in our communities,” said Agard, who argued that, “What we should be doing is providing our communities and healthcare professionals the necessary tools to stop this surge of COVID cases. We should be respecting Wisconsin businesses who are trying to keep their employees and communities safe.”

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@captimes.com and @NicholsUprising. 

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.