Sen. Ron Johnson receives backlash after highlighting rare adverse effects allegedly tied to COVID vaccine

NOW: Sen. Ron Johnson receives backlash after highlighting rare adverse effects allegedly tied to COVID vaccine

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Republican Senator Ron Johnson hosted a news conference where people from around the country shared stories of adverse effects they said were tied to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, an event that drew criticism from local and state leaders as well as concern from health experts.

The news conference was held at the Milwaukee Federal Building and was organized by both Sen. Johnson's office and a group led by former Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Ken Ruettgers. 

"We cannot work, we cannot work for our families or our children or ourselves. We are struggling to make it through each day, abandoned by our health care teams," Brianne Dressen of Utah said during the conference. "We are the collateral damage of the pandemic."

Dressen had enrolled in the Phase 3 clinical trials for the AstraZeneca vaccine. She said she experienced adverse effects almost immediately. Others who spoke also participated in clinical trials for other vaccines.

"I was overwhelmed with grief on their behalf and I said I got to reach out to somebody," Ken Ruettgers told CBS 58. Ruettgers' wife Sheryl experienced adverse effects after receiving her first dose of the Moderna vaccine.

Johnson said he and all the speakers are pro-vaccine but feel cases of rare adverse effects are being ignored by media, government agencies and pharmaceutical companies.

"I think it's important to recognize that there have been people that have been harmed by the vaccine," Johnson told reporters. "And if we don't acknowledge that fact, how are you going to treat people that you are not even acknowledging the root cause of their problem?"

But the event received backlash.

Governor Tony Evers said in a tweet on June 25 Johnson was being "reckless and irresponsible" for organizing the event, adding the GOP senator was, "jeopardizing the health and safety of the people of our state and our economic recovery" for suggesting vaccines were not safe and effective.

Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson released a statement saying, in part, that Senator Johnson "used his platform today to raise misleading concerns regarding the COVID-19 vaccine. The scientific facts about the COVID-19 vaccine remain: it is safe, it is effective, and complications are extremely rare. More importantly, it saves lives."

Johnson was asked by reporters why his efforts appeared to sow doubt in vaccines' safety and efficacy.

"I'm providing people with information I think they ought to have," Johnson said.

Johnson also explained why he was not highlighting success stories of the vaccine.

"Because that's the drum beat within the media. They don't need another drummer beating that drum," Johnson said.

But health experts are concerned about the impact Johnson's event can have.

UW Health's Chief Quality Officer Dr. Jeff Pothof participated in the AstraZeneca clinical trials. He said he understood the concern and emotion by some of the people who shared stories at Johnson's event, but cautioned the risks of COVID-19 infection far outweigh the risks of rare adverse effects by COVID-19 vaccines.

"The greater context is that these adverse events are happening at a rate of single-digit to maybe 20 people per million doses," Dr. Pothof told CBS 58. "On the other side of that equation, the other thing we're fighting, COVID-19, which is killing people at a rate of 18,000 per million people that get infected."

Pothof said research into adverse effects is ongoing, but it is still too early to tie many adverse effects directly to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Watch the full event below: 

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