A UNT Health Science Center official who was at the forefront of the center’s COVID-19 vaccination partnership with Tarrant County shared a vaccine-related Twitter post that was flagged by the social media platform as “misleading.”
He also shared another post that asserted the coronavirus likely emerged from a Chinese lab, potentially as a result of a bioweapons program.
David Mansdoerfer, the special assistant to UNT Health Science Center President Michael Williams, held a key role in the school-county vaccination partnership, in which the UNT Health Science Center agreed to increase Tarrant County’s vaccination capacity by setting up new sites and coordinating outreach to residents. The contract lists Mansdoerfer as HSC’s primary contact person.
Mansdoerfer told the Star-Telegram that his Twitter feed is a reflection of the topics he finds interesting.
“Both of those particular instances are unsettled questions that there’s a lot of national dialogue about,” he said. “For both of them, I never clearly stated one position or the other.”
(Mansdoerfer’s Twitter account, which had been set to public, became private after Mansdoerfer spoke with the Star-Telegram.)
Claire Wardle — the co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit First Draft, which combats misleading and false information — said the real concern is not the individual posts, but the net effect of similar tweets from similarly situated authority figures.
“What it means over time, when all of these drips keep falling, is that people are losing trust in those that they need to trust in an emergency situation like a pandemic,” Wardle said. “So while people can dismiss this individual tweet, what it means to have people in authority talking in this way means that you are really, I would argue, causing real harm to those people that would potentially trust them.”
An HSC spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Tarrant County partnered with HSC in February with the goal of boosting COVID-19 vaccinations in neighborhoods with low vaccination rates. The county paid HSC $2.5 million at the beginning of the contract, and capped the cost at $25 million. HSC and Tarrant County originally agreed to partner until the end of September, but then terminated the contract at the end of July.
Both during and after the partnership, Mansdoerfer interacted with Twitter posts from and about his former boss, Adm. Brett Giroir, who previously served as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ assistant secretary for health. (Before starting at HSC in September 2019, Mansdoerfer was the deputy assistant health secretary under Giroir, during the administration of former President Donald Trump.)
In August, less than a month after the HSC-county partnership ended, Mansdoerfer shared one of Giroir’s Twitter posts about vaccines and post-infection immunity. That tweet was flagged by Twitter as “misleading.”
“It’s now clear #COVID19 natural immunity is superior to #vaccine immunity, by ALOT,” Giroir wrote in the post that Mansdoerfer retweeted. “There’s no science justification for #vax proof if a person had prior infection. @CDCDirector @POTUS must follow the science. If no previous infection? Get vaccinated!”
Health experts, including at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, say that infection does provide some level of protection against reinfection. But the CDC is clear that anyone who has already been infected should still get vaccinated — in part because it’s unclear how long natural immunity lasts, and in part because the combination of prior infection and vaccination provides strong protection.
The Star-Telegram asked Mansdoerfer this week if he believes that people with prior infection still need to get vaccinated.
“I don’t know what the science says,” Mansdoerfer replied. “I’m a free choice person, you know, whether or not people want to choose to get the vaccine or not. I am generally opposed to mandates, but I want to make sure that if people make that choice, it’s available to them.”
When Mansdoerfer’s Twitter account was still publicly viewable, it did not appear that he interacted with any flagged content during the HSC-county vaccination partnership, which wrapped up at the end of July. But during the partnership, Mansdoerfer did interact with three Twitter posts that promoted the theory that the coronavirus was modified in a Chinese lab or purposely created as a bioweapon.
Mansdoerfer in June shared a Fox News video clip in which Giroir discusses the lab leak theory and says that the coronavirus could have been the result of a Chinese “biological weapons program.” Mansdoerfer added his own comment when he shared the clip.
“Incredible commentary from @DrGiroir – I highly recommend watching,” Mansdoerfer wrote.
While the origins of the coronavirus are unclear — a March report from the World Health Organization found it “extremely unlikely” that the virus originated in a lab, and a late August report to President Joe Biden found the virus could have originated in animals or in a lab — U.S. intelligence agencies have determined that the virus was not developed as a bioweapon.
Amid the ongoing uncertainty, Wardle said public health officials have a responsibility to provide context and depth whenever possible.
“This idea that everything that comes out of a public health official’s mouth is perfect is not true, because science evolves,” Wardle said. “But what [Mansdoerfer] tweeted is not nuanced enough.”
County administrator G.K. Maenius, county judge Glen Whitley and county commissioners Devan Allen and Roy Brooks did not respond to requests for comment. In the past, both Allen and Brooks expressed frustration with HSC’s lack of vaccination progress in the county.
This story was originally published October 21, 2021 1:51 PM.