If that headline above sounds at least a little bit familiar at this point, it is indeed because you’ve seen variations on it multiple times in the last few months. In our current phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, in what has increasingly been described as the “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” the virus has continued to run roughshod over many U.S. communities, but especially those in which the rate of vaccination is far below national averages. Thanks to the ability of the vaccines to vastly reduce the risk of serious illness, even in the case of breakthrough infections, nearly all of the country’s COVID-related deaths are now among those who are unvaccinated. And nothing has illustrated this point with more grim irony than the rash of deaths among high-profile anti-vaccine and anti-mask advocates in the last month.
In recent weeks, at least 7 different anti-vaccine and anti-mask conservative activists have ultimately died in hospital settings from COVID-19 and its complications. The men were radio hosts Bob Enyart, Phil Valentine, Marc Bernier and Dick Farrel, along with former CIA officer/conspiracy theorist Robert David Steele, South Carolina GOP leader Pressley Stutts, and anti-vaccine activist Caleb Wallace. All had used their platforms to push various bits of misinformation about the virus, masks and the vaccines, and all were ultimately brought low by the very virus they refused to take seriously. Sadly, several recanted of their anti-vaccine stances in particular before passing away, but by then it was too late.
Florida radio host Dick Farrel, real name Farrel Austin Levitt, passed away from COVID-19 in early August at the age of 65, according to his fiancée. In the months before contracting the virus, he had repeatedly referred to the vaccines as a hoax, calling Dr. Anthony Fauci “a power-tripping lying freak.” Writing on Facebook in July, shortly before contracting the virus, he questioned the following: “Why take a vax promoted by people who lied 2u all along about masks, where the virus came from and the death toll?” Roughly a month later, Farrel was dead, after reportedly encouraging friends and family to get the vaccine while he languished in the hospital. According to a friend of Farrel’s, the radio host also said he wished he had received the vaccine himself.
The story is quite similar with Nashville, Tennessee conservative radio host Phil Valentine, an anti-vaccine advocate who died of COVID-19 in mid-August after a month of being ill. Prior to contracting the virus, he insisted on air that his chances of death from the virus were “way less than one percent.” During his illness, his station, 99.7 WTN, clarified that Valentine had changed his position and “regrets not being more vehemently ‘pro-vaccine,’ and looks forward to being able to more vigorously advocate that position as soon as he is back on the air, which we all hope will be soon.” Valentine, unfortunately, would not have that chance. His brother, Mark Valentine, put out the following statement after the radio host’s death, urging people to forget the political attachment that has grown up around what should be a simple matter of public health.
“Take politics out of it,” said Mark Valentine to WBUR. “It’s time for us to get together and fight this thing collectively. Just put all the conspiracies and microchips and all that business aside and go get vaccinated and don’t put your family through what his wife and the rest of us are going through.”
Even younger anti-vaccine advocates have died as a result of contracting the virus in recent weeks, such as 30-year-old Caleb Wallace, a father of three who was known for organizing anti-mask and anti-vaccine “Freedom Rallies.” After contracting the virus in late July, Wallace initially refused to be tested for COVID, and instead turned to a sampler of home remedies that conspiracy-driven far-right online communities have hailed as coronavirus cure-alls. According to Wallace’s wife, these treatments reportedly included high doses of Vitamin C, zinc, aspirin and Ivermectin, the anti-parasitic drug for farm livestock currently being touted as a miracle anti-COVID drug in right-wing circles. Although Ivermectin has indeed been used in some scenarios for treating human patients, it has not been FDA-approved for the treatment of COVID in humans.
On the surface, these deaths are bad enough on their own, but one would (naively) hope that they might at least serve to educate the audiences of these influencers on the very real and ever-present danger of continuing to exist in the COVID-19 pandemic as an unvaccinated person. Many, however, are decidedly committed to not learning any kind of lesson—especially in the QAnon-adjacent conservative conspiracy sphere online, where these kinds of deaths are simply fodder for more theories. You shouldn’t be surprised to find out that beliefs are now running rampant in these corners of the web that these men were all somehow assassinated via COVID, or some other biological weapon, for daring to speak against the tyrannical will of the federal government. The about-face on vaccines spoken by the likes of Valentine and Farrel on their deathbeds is just conveniently ignored. Instead, the misinformation these men promoted in life continues to be celebrated after their deaths, rather than the lesson that should have been learned in their passing.
These deaths are tragic, for both the fact that they likely could have been prevented, and the fact that the dissemination of misinformation by these men undoubtedly led to other deaths from COVID. It’s important to note, though, that these men were the true believers among vaccine and mask opponents—they legitimately believed at least some aspects of what they were (incorrectly) telling people about the virus and the vaccines, and they died as a result of not protecting themselves. Even more insidious, however, are the likes of FOX News’ Tucker Carlson, a pundit who is almost certainly vaccinated himself, but still casts doubts upon the vaccines on a daily basis anyway because he’s simply playing to what the FOX News TV audience wants to hear. This kind of deadly hypocrisy has become the standard operating procedure in mainstream conservative media—the likes of FOX News maintains a more strict vaccine mandate and testing policy than the White House itself, but simultaneously programs anti-vaccine coverage to give their audience what it wants. Anyone should be able to look at this contradiction and see that there are charlatans involved, and how reprehensible it is for someone like Carlson to protect himself against the virus, but not his viewers.
Still, though, an unmoving segment of American society will continue to resist reality. For the rest of us—the vast majority, even though it doesn’t always feel like it—we can only continue to protect ourselves as best we can, while attempting to assist those who refuse to protect themselves and others.