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Port: Lawmaker references COVID-19 vaccine conspiracy theory in floor debate

"You could hear an audible groan in the chamber," one lawmaker told me shortly afterward. "Absolutely embarrassing."

Rep. Lori VanWinkle
Rep. Lori VanWinkle, a Republican lawmaker from Minot, speaks on the floor of the North Dakota House of Representatives during a debate over House Bill 1279.
Video screenshot

MINOT, N.D. — Need another anecdote suggesting that North Dakota's voters, in many parts of the state, didn't exactly send their best and brightest to make laws in Bismarck?

Here we go.

Rep. Lori VanWinkle, a Republican from Minot, is one of a wave of newly elected North Dakota lawmakers who have made headlines bringing contentious culture war topics to the legislative session in Bismarck.

VanWinkle, specifically, has a reputation for lecturing her fellow lawmakers with passages from the Christian Bible during floor speeches. That her colleagues are increasingly fed up seems clear from today's floor session, during which VanWinkle brought up a COVID-19 vaccine conspiracy theory in the context of a bill expanding worker's compensation coverage for police officers and firefighters.

The legislation in question is House Bill 1279 . It was introduced by Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, and carried out of committee to the floor by Rep. Jim Jonas of West Fargo.

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The latter's participation is fitting (he's also a co-sponsor) because the bill was inspired by the plight of a West Fargo officer named Tim Brown, who suffered a heart attack while on duty . Brown's ailment, however, wasn't covered by worker's compensation insurance because current state law says he needed to have five years of continuous service in North Dakota before it was compensable.

This bill expands that to include service outside of North Dakota. It makes some other changes to the law, too, but you get the gist. The idea is that firefighters and cops have stressful jobs that impact their health, including their cardiac health. There is a need to change the law to ensure they're adequately covered by worker's compensation insurance.

Enter VanWinkle, who rose to ask Jonas, of Brown's heart attack, "How is it that we can know it isn't related to the COVID shot?"

"You could hear an audible groan in the chamber," one lawmaker told me shortly afterward. "Absolutely embarrassing."

I couldn't hear the groans on the video feed myself — you can watch the entire floor debate here — though others who were in the House chamber at the time said they also heard them. One even said she was among those groaning.

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There is no data from credible sources demonstrating a causal relationship between the COVID-19 vaccines and heart attacks. The supposed link between the two got more attention after some claimed it was the reason 24-year-old Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed in the middle of a recent NFL football game, but there's no truth to it .

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported exceedingly rare instances of myocarditis and pericarditis among the recently vaccinated, especially among young men, but that's typically been in the week after receiving a shot.

VanWinkle, who did ultimately vote for the bill, along with every other member of the House who was present, nevertheless went on to seemingly object to the bill on the basis that it was a "carve out" for police officers and firefighters.

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Other people have heart problems, too, she noted.

"Bankers are dying," she told her fellow lawmakers.

After VanWinkle sat down, Rep. Dan Ruby, another Minot-area Republican, pointed out that first responders, such as firefighters and cops, have unique jobs with a lot of stress. This isn't something you'd think would need to be pointed out, but here we are.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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