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In December 2020, as the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines began in the United States, attention turned to prominent Republican lawmakers who had previously downplayed the extent and risk of the pandemic, or opposed face mask mandates, but then availed themselves of early access to the vaccine.
On Dec. 22, CNN reported that:
A slate of GOP lawmakers who downplayed different concerns about the coronavirus pandemic or ignored public health advice are now facing a wave of backlash for being among the first to receive a vaccine. With only limited doses available across the US, members of Congress have been prioritized for inoculation in an effort to maintain governmental continuity on Capitol Hill. But some GOP lawmakers who have publicized their shots — something public health experts have recommended to advertise the vaccine’s safety — are fielding fierce disapproval given their past comments downplaying or misrepresenting the virus earlier this year.
Among those prominent Republicans was U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa. In late December, social media users began sharing a meme that contained a photograph of Ernst receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, along with the following text:
Hi! I’m Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst getting vaccinated for COVID. I want you to forget I called coronavirus a hoax, was an anti-masker and said that doctors exaggerated COVID deaths in order to make more money.
On Dec. 21, Sawyer Hackett, an adviser to former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, posted a widely shared tweet that contrasted Ernst’s purported past claims about COVID-19 fatality statistics and her receiving the vaccine:
The meme contained a significant degree of truth, but also misrepresented aspects of Ernst’s record on COVID-19. During her Senate reelection campaign in 2020, Ernst did indeed falsely suggest the official death toll from COVID-19 was exaggerated because doctors had financial incentives to categorize unrelated deaths as being caused by the virus. She also opposed laws that would require the wearing of face masks in public places.
However, Ernst never described the pandemic as a “hoax,” and discussed it in ways that suggested she took it rather seriously. While opposing legal mask mandates, she also repeatedly urged the public to wear a face mask in order to mitigate against the spread of COVID-19. On the whole, we are issuing a rating of “Mixture.” The following is an explanation of how we reached that conclusion.
Ernst received the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 20, 2020. In a series of tweets, she posted a photograph of herself — the same photograph later included in the meme — and wrote:
Today, at the recommendation of the Office of the Attending Physician, I received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. I encourage all Iowans and Americans to do the same when their time comes. Thanks to Operation Warp Speed and the tireless work of Americans across the country, we are one step closer to defeating this virus. It’s also important that we continue to wear a mask, social distance, and follow CDC guidelines to protect our families, friends, and neighbors.
This component of the meme was therefore accurate — Ernst did indeed receive the vaccine, and the photograph of her doing so was authentic.
Ernst never called the virus a “hoax,” and as early as March 2020, encouraged Iowans to “take this seriously and each do our part to look out for one another.” So this component of the meme was inaccurate. However, she did suggest that the official death toll from the virus had been exaggerated because doctors purportedly had a financial incentive to wrongly categorize unrelated deaths as being cause by COVID-19.
During a campaign visit to Black Hawk County in August, an audience member suggested to Ernst that the official COVID-19 death toll had been exaggerated, promoting a set of false claims, also promulgated by President Donald Trump, which Snopes debunked at the time. According to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Ernst agreed with the man, saying she was “so skeptical” of the official figures, and adding “These health-care providers and others are reimbursed at a higher rate if COVID is tied to it, so what do you think they’re doing?”
When pressed by a reporter after the event, Ernst elaborated, saying:
This is what I’ve heard from healthcare providers and others. I can’t actually look at that information but I have heard it from healthcare providers that they do get reimbursed higher amounts if it’s a COVID-related illness or death.
When asked whether she believed figures for COVID deaths and cases were being inflated, Ernst replied:
That I’m not sure, and again, that’s why I want somebody to really go back and do a good fact check on this, and I don’t have the means to do that… But I do think that should be discussed because I heard the same thing on the news, travelling across the state today, that they’re thinking there may be 10,000 or less deaths that were actually singularly COVID-19.
The meme’s description of Ernst as an “anti-masker” was a stretch. Ernst expressed opposition to mask mandates — laws requiring the wearing of face masks in public spaces — but also consistently supported the use of face masks. During a Senate debate on Sept. 28, Ernst said wearing a face mask was “important” and that “they work.” However, she added that “To mandate it, we know it’s unenforceable, and we know that it doesn’t work.”
On social media, Ernst has repeatedly encouraged the public to wear face masks as a way of combatting the spread of COVID-19, and in September, she was one of several prominent Republican senators who took part in a public information video advocating the use of face masks:
— Joni Ernst (@SenJoniErnst) September 1, 2020