The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ron Johnson somehow isn’t clear on why post-illness immunity is worse than no-illness immunity

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

There are two ways you can learn that sticking your head in a campfire will hurt you. One is that you can be told that doing so will, at a minimum, catch your hair on fire and, more likely, cause extensive burns that will almost certainly demand medical attention. The other way you can learn this is by sticking your head in a campfire.

In both cases, you get to the same point: You have learned that this is a bad idea. You have been immunized against sticking your head into fires in the future, if you will — your body will now be resistant to doing so. But you got to that point through two very, very different paths. Perhaps in one you simply got part of your hair scorched off. Isn’t it still the case that simply having someone explain the dangers to you would have been better than taking that risk at all?

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I introduce this analogy to immunize you against the mind-bogglingly weird anti-vaccine argument offered by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) in a recent radio interview, an argument so obviously flawed that I literally and involuntarily slapped my forehead when I heard it.

He began by describing his own coronavirus infection: He had it, he said, but without symptoms. “How do you explain that?” he asked in a mocking tone, as though he had single-handedly rebutted every medical expert with his unique anecdotal experience. As though Anthony S. Fauci scrambled to call together his team to evaluate this new evidence. The answer, of course, is that this can be explained by the fact that a large number of coronavirus infections are asymptomatic — so many, in fact, that I can spell “asymptomatic” without typos on the first try. Johnson isn’t a medical miracle. He’s just one of the lucky ones.

“Why do we assume that the body’s natural immune system isn’t the marvel that it is?” Johnson then continued. “Why do we think that we can create something better than God in terms of combating disease? There are certain things we have to do, but we have just made so many assumptions, and it’s all pointed toward everybody getting a vaccine.”

Let’s translate this into our campfire analogy. Johnson stuck his head into a campfire but, through unusual good luck, emerged with no visible damage at all. And his response is to say that the best way for people to learn about what can happen when you stick your head in a campfire is to stick their heads in campfires — and that to instead warn them about doing so is an affront to God.

What’s completely bizarre about this argument, of course, is that the entire point is that we want people to have some protection against being infected. Immunity is sought, because it means you won’t get sick. Johnson is saying that the way to not get sick is to ... get sick. Makes sense. Put another way, Johnson’s argument is the equivalent of saying that you don’t need to wear a bulletproof vest if you instead simply let your torso be perforated by a cannonball. No one’s going to shoot you in the stomach if your stomach has already been shot away! Checkmate, libs.

But then there’s the other side to this argument. Vaccination, as has been repeatedly demonstrated, lessens the likelihood of severe illness from a coronavirus infection. Even with the emergence of the omicron variant, it’s the unvaccinated who are more likely to be hospitalized. From June to November, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 163,000 covid-19 deaths could have been prevented had those who died simply been vaccinated.

That, of course, was the unstated other negative outcome of my campfire analogy. Sometimes you stick your head in a campfire and you don’t gain immunity against doing so in the future, because you are dead. The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 825,000 people, all of whom were not as lucky with their infections as was Johnson. About 1 in 5 of them died because they declined to get vaccinated against the virus, if KFF’s numbers are to be believed.

Johnson has been banging this drum for a while. There’s no point in telling him why he’s wrong about this — if he cared about being accurate, he would have already changed his rhetoric. But if there’s one person out there who finds his pitch compelling and, instead, reads this assessment, it’s worth parsing how truly ludicrous Johnson’s claims are.

And, well we’re at it: Don’t stick your head in a campfire. It would hurt a lot.