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Anti-Vaccination Activists Join Stay-At-Home Order Protesters


Protests over stay-at-home orders because of COVID-19 have become more common around the country. In California, a surprising group is behind some of them - those who oppose mandatory vaccinations. Katie Orr of member station KQED reports from Sacramento.

KATIE ORR, BYLINE: A mashup of people mingle on the sidewalk in front of California's state Capitol. There were Trump supporters with MAGA hats waving American flags. There were Christians singing along to religious rock songs and raising their hands in prayer.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Everybody at the Capitol, tell Gavin Newsom that 107.9 FM - if he wants to hear what we have to say. It'd be kind of good for him.


ORR: There were also mothers with children. They'd all come out to protest California's stay-at-home order put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19. This week's event was built around the National Day of Prayer and featured pastors and sermons. But it was organized by a group called Freedom Angels, which was originally formed to fight mandatory vaccine laws in the state. At the beginning of the rally, the group's founders took the stage, including Denise Aguilar.


DENISE AGUILAR: Hello, everybody. My name is Denise. I'm one of the founders of Freedom Angels. Thank you, guys, for being out here...


AGUILAR: ...To let Governor Newsom know we're not going away. We've said this for years.

ORR: The group has become a fixture at the Capitol ever since California passed a law requiring school students to be vaccinated and a second law tightening restrictions on medical exemptions for those vaccines. But another Freedom Angels founder, Stefanie Fetzer, says they're not a single-issue group. She says these events are about promoting personal freedom.

STEFANIE FETZER: I think what we're seeing now is the predictive modeling that they came out with in the beginning didn't hold true. We aren't seeing the numbers that they predicted. And instead of backing off of the shutdown and the restrictive measures that Governor Newsom implemented, he seems to be doubling down.

ORR: But public health advocates aren't buying it. Democratic state Senator Richard Pan, who authored California's vaccine laws, believes this anti-vaccine group is aligning with others protesting the stay-at-home order as a way to promote their cause. After all, Pan says, a vaccine would eventually allow the economy to reopen.

RICHARD PAN: They have staged these protests to basically find a way to get media attention for themselves. They fundraise off of their activities as well. So frankly, many of the anti-vaxxers who are involved in this are really there for their own interests.

ORR: But it's common for anti-vaccine groups to latch on to controversial issues, says epidemiologist and vaccine educator Rene Najera. For instance, he points to abortion.

RENE NAJERA: They try to say that there are aborted fetal cells in vaccines, which they're not, to try to get the anti-abortion people on their side. And then they flip it around and say, also, my body, my choice.

ORR: Najera says those tactics can have dangerous outcomes, including making people think twice about getting vaccines. In fact, he says, in 2019, the World Health Organization named vaccine hesitancy, or people's reluctance to consider vaccination, as one of the world's top 10 public health challenges.

NAJERA: And we saw the effects of that, right? We saw a rise of measles in the United States to the point where the elimination status of the United States for measles was in jeopardy.

ORR: But Najera says vaccine opponents aren't going away. If anything, the rise of social media has made it easier for them to spread their message. And Najera says what he finds most frustrating is that these anti-vaccine protesters aren't just making choices that affect their families. Choosing not to vaccinate their children and joining other large protests to spread their message puts the health of everyone at risk.

For NPR News, I'm Katie Orr in Sacramento. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Katie Orr