GOP doctor running for Minnesota governor denies he's an anti-vaxxer — he's just anti-vax-curious

Scott Jensen spread COVID conspiracy theories, and has appeared with top anti-vaccine activists many times

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published July 21, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Scott Jensen (Image courtesy of the Minnesota Senate photographer's office)
Scott Jensen (Image courtesy of the Minnesota Senate photographer's office)

A Minnesota physician who was banned by TikTok and investigated by medical authorities for spreading misinformation about COVID-19 is now running for governor. While Scott Jensen denies he's an anti-vax candidate, he's definitely an anti-vax-adjacent candidate

Jensen, a Republican who served four years in the Minnesota state Senate, launched a gubernatorial bid this spring after drawing headlines throughout the pandemic for stoking false claims about the virus. He was featured in the viral conspiracy-theory video "Plandemic" and cited by PolitiFact cited as a key source for its 2020 "Lie of the Year." That referred to a Fox News appearance when Jensen supported the false allegation that doctors were overcounting COVID cases for financial benefit. Medical experts have in fact argued the exact opposite, that cases have consistently been undercounted.

Jensen's baseless claim was promoted on the conspiracy theory clearinghouse Infowars and later used by former President Donald Trump on the campaign trail to downplay the pandemic death toll. Jensen came under investigation by the Minnesota State Board of Medical Practice last year for spreading the claim, although the complaint challenging his medical license was ultimately dismissed.

Jensen told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that he had "no regrets" over his comments and touted his "inflated numbers" claim in announcing his gubernatorial campaign, vowing to "continue to search for truth and expose the facts surrounding COVID-19."

More recently, Jensen has partnered with anti-vaccine activists to stoke fears about coronavirus vaccines. In May, he joined Dr. Simone Gold, an anti-vaccine activist who founded the pro-hydroxychloroquine, anti-mask group America's Frontline Doctors — and who was arrested for storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 — in a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services seeking to prevent kids under 16 from being vaccinated. The lawsuit cited Jensen's false claim that COVID poses a "0%" risk of death to children. Although in statistical terms the risk to children is low, hundreds of children and teens have died and thousands have been hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Jensen told the Twin Cities Pioneer Press that he has "quietly" been a member of America's Frontline Doctors, which became something of a national laughingstock after videos showing Dr. Stella Immanuel, another member, warning about the dangers of sperm "demons" and "astral sex" with witches went viral last year. (For unclear reasons, Immanuel was speaking at a press conference in front of the Supreme Court building.) Jensen has recently tried to downplay his involvement with Gold's lawsuit, telling the Pioneer Press that he had not read the entire petition and adding that he "did not know Simone was in any hot water over January 6."

Jensen himself has refused to be vaccinated, saying it's unnecessary because he was already infected with COVID. In fact, the CDC has urged those who have recovered from COVID to be vaccinated because it's not clear how long natural immunity lasts. Jensen has defended the use of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine — which was vigorously promoted by Donald Trump as president — as a COVID treatment despite FDA warnings that data suggests the drug has "no benefit" to patients and could cause serious heart, kidney and liver issues. More recently, Jensen has promoted ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug that the FDA warns is not an antiviral and could cause "serious harm" to COVID patients. A large study cited by many conservatives to back its use was retracted last week due to "ethical concerns" after researchers discovered data discrepancies.

Jensen insists, however, that he is not against vaccines. "As Information and data are emerging weekly, if not daily, It is important to scrutinize and access all the data. Dr. Jensen appreciates the robust conversation from all perspectives," Rita Hillmann Olson, a spokesperson for Jensen's campaign, said in a statement to Salon. "The majority of Dr. Jensen's patients, who are 70 or older with multiple underlying conditions, have been vaccinated for COVID. He spends more than $100,000 per year to provide vaccines for his patients and vaccines are a standard part of the medical care he provides."

Dr. Aleta Borrud, a Minnesota doctor and a Democrat who is running for a state Senate seat, called Jensen's claims an "affront" to health care providers and to the thousands of Minnesotans who have lost loved ones in the pandemic.

"By spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccination, Dr. Scott Jensen is undermining Minnesota's efforts to put our state on a path to recovery at a moment when Minnesota is seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases," Borrud said in a statement. "He has been denounced nationally for falsely stating that COVID-19 deaths are inflated, attacking the integrity of our frontline medical providers, asserting they stand to gain financially by inflating death statistics."

Jensen's claims casting doubt on federal health agencies and the national COVID response have made him a star in right-wing media circles and has earned him frequent appearances on Fox News and other conservative outlets. Jensen has used his higher profile to build up a large social media following, becoming "one of the nation's most-followed politicians on TikTok," according to Axios, before he was banned from the app in April for violating its COVID misinformation policies.

Jensen has also amassed more than 290,000 followers on Facebook, which President Joe Biden recently blamed for "killing people" by failing to crack down on misinformation about the pandemic. Jensen's Facebook rants against Dr. Anthony Fauci and videos criticizing the federal response frequently go viral and are swamped with comments calling forFauci's arrest, falsely claiming "there was no pandemic," baselessly alleging that the vaccine is "more dangerous than the virus" and pushing conspiracy theories comparing mass vaccination to "Holocaust experiments."

Democratic state Sen. Matt Klein, a physician, said it was "harmful and dangerous" for Jensen to value his experience as a doctor over the "expertise of the overwhelming majority of virologists and public health experts across the country."

"As doctors, when we encounter an issue outside our area of expertise, it is our practice and our creed to seek the opinions of experts in order to provide the best possible medical advice," Klein said in a statement. "Time and time again, Scott Jensen has refused to do so and misled the people of Minnesota about the COVID-19 pandemic as a result."

Jensen's vaccine skepticism predates the pandemic. In 2019, he posted a Facebook video saying that vaccines could have adverse side effects, saying that "results are not guaranteed and research-based predictions often fall short" while supporting parents' rights to refuse to get their kids immunized. But over the past year, he has become a prominent figure in the anti-vaccine conspiracy world. In October, Jensen appeared at a "Vaccine Awareness Event" in Alexandria, Minnesota, that featured discredited leading anti-vaccine activist Andrew Wakefield; Del Bigtree, founder of the anti-vaccine Informed Consent Action Network and a frequent guest on Alex Jones' Infowars; Dr. Bob Zajac, a Minnesota physician who came under investigation by the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice for questioning the safety of vaccines to patients; and Sheila Easley, an anti-vaccine activist whose claim that the MMR vaccine caused her son's autism was featured in Wakefield and Bigtree's documentary "Vaxxed." At that event, Jensen stressed that he is not an anti-vaxxer but praised the panel for its "education and engagement" efforts.

Jensen was also a presenter at a notorious event called the "Truth Over Fear Summit on Covid and the 'Great Reset,'" which the Anti-Defamation League described as promoting the conspiracy theory that "global elites" are using the pandemic to "advance their interests and push forward a globalist plot to destroy American sovereignty and prosperity." The event also featured Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a leading anti-vaccine activist; Dr. Judy Mikovits, the doctor behind the "Plandemic" video and a vaccine conspiracy theorist; Dr. Vladimir Zelenko, who championed the use of hydroxychloroquine and got Trump to endorse it; Dr. Wolfgang Wodarg, who has falsely claimed that COVID vaccines cause infertility; and Dr. Carrie Madej, a QAnon supporter who spoke at a pro-Trump, anti-vaccine rally on Jan. 6, claiming that the vaccine "contains bio-sensing nanomachines designed to alter human DNA and control people's minds."

Jensen also appeared at the Minnesota Holistic Round Table Summit, which also featured Bigtree and Zajac, and has frequently appeared on Bigtree's "Highwire" podcast since the start of the pandemic. Bigtree became a star in the anti-vaccine world after the 2016 release of "Vaxxed," which was pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival after backlash from medical experts. The film pushed Wakefield's discredited claim that MMR vaccines cause autism, according to Stat News, and "advanced, but provided no evidence for, a conspiracy theory" claiming that the CDC "covered up vital data and committed fraud."

Bigtree's show was removed from YouTube after he urged viewers to intentionally expose themselves to COVID, but not before it had attracted more than 360,000 followers and more than 30 million views. Bigtree, who has no medical training, has called for everyone but high-risk individuals to "develop natural, stronger, more thorough herd immunity" without a vaccine, even though medical experts warned that would kill hundreds of thousands more people.

Bigtree has claimed that the "purpose" of COVID is to "help usher in vaccine mandates" and is part of a plot by the pharmaceutical industry to enrich itself. Bigtree has promoted his views on Infowars, baselessly warning of "vaccine-enhanced disease" and pushing the discredited claim that the vaccine makes women infertile.

Bigtree was a featured speaker at the MAGA Freedom Rally on Jan. 6, about a block away from the Capitol building, where he linked Trump's election conspiracy theories to his campaign against vaccines.

"I wish I could tell you I believed in the CDC. ... I wish I could tell you that this pandemic really is dangerous," he said. "I wish I could believe that voting machines worked ... but none of this is happening."

Earlier this year, Jensen also appeared on the podcast hosted by Sherri Tenpenny, who has described Covid as a "scamdemic" and the vaccines as a "genocidal, DNA-manipulating, infertility-causing, dementia-causing machine." Tenpenny claimed on Twitter that vaccines are a "method of depopulation" before she was suspended by the platform. A recent analysis found that Tenpenny was one of just 12 accounts responsible for producing up to 65% of all anti-vaccine content on Twitter and Facebook. Among her many conspiracy theories is a claim that Bill Gates is behind "chemtrail, 5G, and vaccine microchip-related, world-domination plans," according to Snopes. More recently, Tenpenny went viral after appearing before Ohio state lawmakers to make the false claim that vaccines magnetize people.

Last month, Jensen was interviewed by Robert Scott Bell, a radio host and homeopathic practitioner who has promoted the use of a formula called Silver Hydrosol as a COVID treatment. The FDA has since listed the product among other "fraudulent" COVID remedies. More recently, Bell's show has promoted vaccine infertility, vaccine shedding, "Eugenics," and 5G conspiracy theories. The show is hosted by Natural News Radio, which was founded by Mike Adams, a conspiracy theorist who compared those who advocate COVID vaccines to Nazi eugenicists.

Despite repeatedly appearing alongside some of the most prominent anti-vaccine activists in the world, Jensen has repeatedly denied being an anti-vaxxer. He told the Star-Tribune in May that he wants vaccines for children paused "so that the status quo can be maintained until we have a chance to have a broader, more robust discussion." But he has continued to claim on social media that teens and children have a "0% statistical chance of dying" from the pandemic even though at least 335 Americans under 17 have died, according to the CDC, and some children infected have had long COVID symptoms lasting for months.

Jensen called Democrats who accuse him of spreading conspiracy theories "desperate" but has said he knows his comments will continue to shadow his campaign.

"I think for me the question is going to be: 'Was I on point? Was I rational? Was I a COVID denier? Did I intentionally phone in conspiracy theories?'" he told the Star-Tribune. "I think it'll hang around. But I think it is going to be far enough away that Minnesotans are going to demand a stronger focus on public safety and what are we doing for our kids."

In recent months, Jensen has tried to shift his public image, in sharp contrast to his initial attempts to blame Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, for "destroying livelihoods" and keeping "families apart and businesses closed" during the pandemic.

"I think Gov. Walz has made some good decisions, but as this pandemic has gone on, decisions haven't been based on science, they've been based on political science," Jensen told local news outlet KSTP after announcing his bid in March.

He denied that he has spread conspiracy theories, but= doubled down on his opposition to mask and vaccine mandates.

"I don't think I introduced conspiracy theories," he told the outlet. "People took snippets of what I said and put it wherever they wanted on programs and on pages and websites I'd never heard of. I don't think there's anything I could have done about that."

The Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party has gone on the offensive against Jensen's nascent campaign, calling him an "anti-vaccine doctor" and slamming him for joining a "fringe group of doctors and insurrectionists to spread dangerous misinformation."

In a statement after Jensen announced his candidacy, DFL Party chair Ken Martin described him as "a dangerous COVID-19 conspiracy theorist who has been caught spreading lies about the pandemic, palling around with anti-vaccine extremists, and downplaying the virus that has taken over half a million American lives." 

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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