Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of conservative leaders have used social media to push conspiracy theories about vaccines, masks, and the coronavirus itself. But if the past 17 months have taught me anything, it's that the universe won't hesitate to implement a little irony into any situation. This week, a Texas Republican leader who often posted conspiracies online died from COVID-19, a few days after sharing his last Facebook post — a screenshot of a tweet that casted doubt on vaccine effectiveness.
On Aug. 1, Dickinson City Council member and State Republican Executive Committee member H. Scott Apley was admitted to a medical facility in Galveston with "pneumonia-like symptoms" and a positive COVID-19 test, per a GoFundMe page set up by the family. Following his admission, Apley was sedated and put on a ventilator.
Then, on Wednesday, an update confirmed that Apley had passed. The fundraiser, which has raised over $30,000 of its $50,000 goal, stated, "[Apley] leaves behind his wife, Melissa, who is COVID positive, as well as their infant son Reid." In a Facebook post, the county Republican party said Apley's death was a "tragedy", adding, "God remains in control although this is yet another tough one to swallow."
While Apley's passing is indeed tragic, it was likely avoidable. CDC data shows that, even with the Delta Variant sweeping through the U.S, less than 0.004% of people who are fully vaccinated have experienced a breakthrough case requiring hospitalization, and overall less than 0.001% have died from the virus.
Apley's GoFundMe page doesn't mention if he was vaccinated, but given his anti-vax social media activity, it's reasonable to guess he wasn't. The tweet he reshared on Facebook shortly before his death read, "In 6 months, we’ve gone from the vax ending the pandemic—to you can still get covid even if vaxxed—to you can pass covid onto others even if vaxxed."
Apley's entire social media presence is basically a snapshot of conservative conspiracy theories that have run rampant throughout the pandemic. He reportedly even shared a rap that downplayed the COVID-19 mortality rate in attempts to make the entire pandemic look like a hoax.
If that wasn't enough, Apley posted about a "mask burning" event taking place at a bar in May, writing, "I wish I lived in the area!" Last month, he also shared a Facebook meme equating COVID-19 safety measures with Nazism.
Perhaps most egregiously, though, was Apley's response to former Baltimore health commissioner Leana Wen's celebration about the Pfizer vaccine's efficacy this spring. When Wen tweeted about the news, Apley responded with a tweet that read, "You are an absolute enemy of a free people. #ShoveTheCarrotWhereTheSunDontShine."
Some might balk at the notion of sifting through Apley's social media to find content like this. However, Apley wasn't just some random anti-vaxxer who happened to die from COVID-19. He held positions of power within his communities, even if they may be small. It's no small thing for a politician in Texas, which ranks 36th in the U.S. for vaccination rates, to push an opinion that can endanger others.
Vaccination rates are complicated because they don't tell the entire story. Given the amount of anti-vaxxers running around, it's easy to assume anyone without a vaccine simply doesn't want one. While the Texas Tribune reported that mistrust is a leading cause of vaccine hesitancy, Dr. David Lakey, the chief medical officer of the University of Texas System, told the outlet that the reason behind this mistrust varies.
For example, he said that white conservatives show a "distrust of government." But for Black and Latinx residents, the mistrust comes from a "lack of trust in the health care system,” which has historically failed their communities. In addition, language barriers and the simple inability to get a day off or transportation to a vaccine site means many people who may want the jab — or who are open to being educated about vaccines — are left out of the loop.
Recently, some Republicans have done quite an about-face when it comes to vaccines. Notably, former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders admitted she's vaccinated (although she tried to credit Trump for it), and Fox News host Sean Hannity tried to encourage viewers to take COVID-19 seriously. But while some top Republicans are changing their tune, it only goes so far when people like Apley — who could be quite influential within their local communities — continue to spread the propaganda they backed only months ago.