More than a year and a half after coronavirus vaccines became available, questions remain over Scott Jensen’s refusal to get a shot.
Jensen, the presumptive Republican nominee for Minnesota governor, remains unvaccinated. That puts him in the company of about 25 percent of eligible Minnesotans, but Jensen’s refusal is noteworthy because he’s a practicing physician who continues to see patients most days of the week. The nation’s public health apparatus has tried to reach universal vaccination status for medical workers to help protect vulnerable patients, including with a federal mandate targeting doctors and nurses.
Jensen appears to have passed through gaps in the federal vaccine mandate, and in interviews with the Pioneer Press, he acknowledged that mandate might have played a role in his decision to alter his longtime medical practice — relinquishing hospital admitting privileges — which allowed him to avoid the mandate while still being able to accept federal Medicare payments for work with his patients.
He has also left a faculty position at the University of Minnesota — a post that could have subjected him to the U’s vaccine mandate — although he said that decision was unrelated to any mandate.
As for why he himself hasn’t been vaccinated, Jensen has offered a varying narrative.
Since Jensen, 67, became eligible for vaccination, he has consistently dismissed it as unnecessary, calling himself immune following his own COVID-19 infection in August 2020. Jensen’s position that his infection can be a substitute for a vaccine is not an opinion supported by the vast majority of health experts, from the CDC and WHO to the Mayo Clinic and every other hospital network in Minnesota, who recommend getting vaccinated and boosted even if you’ve been infected.
But that wasn’t the only element of Jensen’s explanation. He repeatedly touted the donation of his blood — plasma enriched with antibodies — that can help treat patients with COVID-19. However, as time has passed and the likelihood of his blood still being suitable for that purpose has shrunk, mentions of his plasma donations have shifted into past tense and he now describes his own antibodies not as life-saving for others, but as protective for himself.
In a recent interview with the Pioneer Press, Jensen acknowledged that he hasn’t donated any plasma in 2022. He declined to discuss when he last donated or how many times he has in total.
COVID CONTROVERSY NOT NEW
Scrutiny over COVID-related stances isn’t new for Jensen, a former state senator who early in the pandemic began sowing doubt about COVID-19’s death toll. He gained internet prominence among followers of those fomenting skepticism around the vaccines. Facebook has flagged some of his posts in their effort to combat misinformation, and he said TikTok banned him.
He’s become a prominent member of a loose international movement of doctors espousing views about the pandemic that are at the fringes of the scientific and medical community. He’s said he’s “quietly” been a member of America’s Frontline Doctors, a group that, among other efforts, has pushed to halt vaccinations for 12- to 16-year-olds. The group has been accused of pushing false and misleading information about the pandemic.
Jensen isn’t the only health care professional opposed to getting the COVID vaccine. According to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 12 percent of nursing home workers remained unvaccinated as of March.
There was enough opposition among the ranks of unionized nurses that the Minnesota Nurses Association stopped short of supporting mandates put forward by the state’s hospitals, although its official position stated “all those who can be vaccinated should be.” In September 2021, 188 anonymous health care workers from Minnesota and Wisconsin sued in federal court to block mandates for them, with some making the argument of natural immunity similar to Jensen. The plaintiffs withdrew their lawsuit weeks later.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion allowing the federal mandate to take effect noted that “health care workers and public health organizations overwhelmingly support” the requirement.
Jensen, in addition to eschewing the vaccine for himself, has said he doesn’t make a recommendation for about a third of his patients at his family practices in Watertown and Chaska. He has also said he recommends against vaccinating anyone who’s pregnant; the CDC says vaccines are safe during pregnancy and COVID-19 is more dangerous during that time, for both parent and baby.
‘DONATE BLOOD EVERY WEEK’
When asked by the Pioneer Press to provide details of his history of blood donation for convalescent plasma, Jensen declined.
“That’s private information,” he said. “That’s not for public consumption.” He later added: “I don’t even remember when I last gave plasma.”
In a subsequent statement, he said he didn’t think the topic was relevant. “It’s time to focus on issues impacting Minnesotans right now, like inflation, rising gas prices, and out-of-control crime, not the personal health choices of candidates,” he said.
But he’s touted his donations publicly for much of his campaign.
In January 2021, he posted a video of himself on Facebook donating blood. “Due to my antibody levels, I can donate every week,” he wrote in the post.
In another video posted the next month, when vaccine demand was at its height, he explained his vaccine refusal in altruistic terms. “There’s no reason for me — someone who has had the natural disease and has the antibodies that the blood banks want — to take any vaccine away from someone who wants it.” As of last week, the video had 1.2 million views.
In a March interview with Minnesota Public Radio, he said, “And in terms of the vaccination, you’re asking me to get a vaccine so that I could get antibodies, which I already have, and have been donating so that people who are struggling to get over COVID could get over COVID. I don’t know what scientific sense that makes.”
The goal of convalescent plasma is to use a high concentration of antibodies from someone who has recovered from the actual virus and then infuse them into the bloodstream of someone currently battling the virus, taking advantage of the wonders of the human body’s immune system. Support for the treatment has risen and fallen over the course of the pandemic as researchers have debated its effectiveness. It never took a strong hold in Minnesota.
Jensen was an early adopter of convalescent plasma, and it’s possible his donations saved lives.
“I am a strong believer in convalescent plasma, and I think we could have kept a lot of people from dying and out of the (intensive care unit) if we had more of it,” said Dr. Claudia Cohn, director of the Blood Bank Laboratory at the University of Minnesota and a professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the U’s Medical School.
In 2020, some 100,000 patients are estimated to have received the treatment, according to the National Institutes of Health — a fraction of the millions sickened in the first year of the pandemic.
BLOOD NOT SUITABLE?
Antibody levels, whether from being vaccinated or from encountering the virus, wane over time at varying rates among individuals. As far as Jensen’s blood containing sufficient concentrations of the right kinds of antibodies to continually donate plasma, that same phenomenon is in play.
“There isn’t a strict upper time limit,” said Dr. Kamille Aisha West-Mitchell, chief of the Blood Services Section at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, which has maintained one of the longest-running studies and convalescent plasma donation centers in the nation.
In an interview, West-Mitchell said that if you were infected in August 2020, then by December 2021, “The vast majority of people would not have high enough antibody tests” to be able to donate convalescent plasma. She was speaking of her study subjects in general and not of Jensen specifically.
When the Pioneer Press began raising questions early this spring about the suitability of his blood for donation and whether he remained unvaccinated, campaign manager Angela Cooperman wrote in an email: “Scott has not been vaccinated against COVID-19. He has donated his plasma for convalescent use for people suffering from COVID. He has antibodies to both the spike protein and the nucleocapsid portion of the COVID virus.”
Indeed, if Jensen were still able to donate his plasma, that argument for avoiding the vaccine would carry weight: Taking the vaccine will render someone ineligible to donate plasma within six months, according to the authorization of its use by the federal Food and Drug Administration.
In an interview Thursday, Jensen said he wasn’t aware of that, and he downplayed the connection between his decision not to get the vaccine and his plasma donations.
“If you reported that my reasons for not getting vaccinated have shifted, I would cry foul,” he said. “I would say, ‘That’s not right.’ I was clear. I did not get vaccinated because I was naturally immune … and that hasn’t changed.”
Jensen said he tests his blood every few months to check his antibody levels, which he said continue to be high enough to consider himself immune. He offered his most recent results, from April 18, to the Pioneer Press, which showed he is still producing antibodies. Scientists don’t actually know what level of antibodies is protective enough. The FDA has cautioned that “antibody tests should not be used to evaluate a person’s level of immunity or protection from COVID-19.”
In September 2021, as the delta variant was surging, the Biden administration announced that everyone who works in “Medicare- or Medicaid-certified facilities” must be vaccinated if the facilities and doctors wanted to continue to receive reimbursement from the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. This requirement remains in place today. (A different mandate for non-medical employers was struck down in court.)
Between 2013 and 2019 — the most recent years for which data is available — Jensen steadily billed CMS for medical work. He received roughly $590,000 in Medicare payments during this time, according to publicly available federal payment records.
At the time the mandate was announced, Jensen was affiliated with Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia, where his ties dated back to at least 1986 when he became a staff physician.
Ridgeview was subject to the mandate.
A month after the mandate was announced, Jensen voluntarily relinquished his affiliation with the hospital.
“Scott Jensen is not on the Ridgeview Medical Staff and his reasons for relinquishing his privileges are his own,” the hospital said in a statement to the Pioneer Press, declining to provide further information.
Over several interviews, Jensen said it’s possible the vaccine mandate entered into his decision, but “I don’t remember all those conversations.” He downplayed the prominence the vaccine mandate would have had, characterizing his relationship with Ridgeview as having faded over the years. He rarely treated patients at the hospital, and the annual cost of about “a thousand dollars” to retain his affiliation wasn’t worth it, he said.
“We were not generating any dollars having an affiliate relationship with any hospital,” he said.
Even though the mandate covers “nursing homes, hospitals, dialysis facilities, ambulatory surgical settings, and home health agencies, among others,” Jensen’s activities at his private practice — Catalyst Medical Clinic — do not appear to be subject to the mandate. The two facilities his practice operates in Chaska and Watertown are not listed as “CMS-certified.”
This is how Jensen is able to continue to practice medicine and bill the federal government for eligible costs without having to be vaccinated. Speaking generally and not of Jensen specifically, a CMS spokesman said in an email: “A private-practice physician not affiliated with a CMS-certified provider or supplier (for example, someone who does not have admitting privileges at a certified hospital) could bill Medicare/Medicaid but not be subject to the vaccine requirement.”
This wasn’t by design; the Biden administration wanted to cover as many people who interact with patients as possible. However, the agency determined its legal authority over workers is limited to their activities in the bureaucratic universe of “CMS-certified facilities,” the spokesman said.
As of Friday, Jensen’s public bio on his practice’s website incorrectly stated he was still on staff at Ridgeview, listing him as “Staff Physician … 1986 – present.”
The website also lists among his “present positions”: “Clinical Associate Professor – University of MN Family Practice Dept. 1984-present.” That’s also inaccurate.
According to the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota’s Medical School, he’s not on faculty there and hasn’t held the title of professor since 2020.
The Pioneer Press first asked Jensen and his campaign about these inaccuracies in a mid-April email, never receiving a response.
On Thursday, Jensen said he was unaware the website was inaccurate and said, “I’ll get that clarified.”
His campaign website and materials do not appear to repeat the inaccuracies.
LEAVING THE U
Jensen said he left the U of M voluntarily at the end of 2020, a decision that predated any vaccine mandates. By then, he had been serving in the Minnesota Senate for nearly four years, and he said he was able to devote little time to what had become a volunteer gig instructing med students.
“I was just leaving the Senate, and my wife and I had just made the decision that we were 99 percent we were gonna run for governor,” he said. “I said, ‘Well, if I’m gonna run for governor, I’m not gonna be serving the University.’ ”
Jensen and running mate Matt Birk are heavy favorites in the Aug. 9 Republican primary against Bob “Again” Carney Jr. and Joyce Lynne Lacey. Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan are heavy favorites in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor primary. The general election is Nov. 8.