A leading public health officer in California was forced to confront a baseless conspiracy theory on Tuesday and had to declare publicly that Covid-19 vaccines do not carry tracking devices.
The unusual moment unfolded Tuesday as Orange County's top public health administrator, Dr. Clayton Chau, answered questions from members of the county Board of Supervisors.
“In the vaccine, we heard about the injection of a tracking device. Is that being done anywhere in Orange County?” Supervisor Don Wagner asked.
A surprised Chau appeared to chuckle under his mask before answering.
“I’m sorry. I just have to compose myself," Chau said. "There is not a vaccine with a tracking device embedded in it that I know of that exists in the world. Period.”
In a statement to NBC News on Thursday, Wagner defended his question, saying he doesn't believe tracking vaccines exist and raised it only to debunk the wild conspiracy theory.
"I lead Dr. Chau through those charges and to have him debunk them," Wagner said. "I know they are not true but wanted the public to hear that directly from Dr. Chau. I got exactly the response from Dr. Chau I expected, with the same laugh at the absurdity of the charges that they deserve."
Wagner continued: "He and I are in regular communication about these public myths and when they persist for months on end, we work together to dispel them."
Wagner has been critical of California's response to the coronavirus pandemic and is opposed to government tracking of individual vaccinations.
But he's not a vaccine conspiracy theorist. Earlier this month, the lawmaker even tweeted a picture of Dr. Chau giving him a Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Still, Wagner was criticized and ridiculed for even giving a platform to vaccine conspiracy theory.
"There is a tracking device in the vaccine (very small to fit into the needle) and it’s still looking for your brain," tennis icon Martina Navratilova mockingly tweeted.
But Paul Cleary, a professor of public health and sociology at Yale University, said open dialogue — even based on an "outlandish" premise — is helpful.
"I actually found this exchange interesting and I think airing this could be beneficial, not harmful," Cleary said Thursday. "This exchange convinced me that even otherwise reasonable people in leadership positions have questions about what I think of as outlandish ideas."
Cleary added: "When I am asked a question I try to provide information that addresses their concerns. I think that is a useful approach, irrespective of the nature of question, even if it seems outlandish."
The false claim that the vaccine includes some sort of tracker, or nefarious microchip, has been an incredibly popular conspiracy theory embraced by New Age groups, anti-government organizations, and even mainstream audiences, according to First Draft, a nonprofit that tracks misinformation.
Orange County is a sprawling Southern California suburb with nearly 3.2 million residents. It's California's third most populous county and the sixth biggest in the nation.
The county was once a bastion of Republican politics, but has gone decidedly blue in recent years with Democrats now holding five of its seven congressional seats.
Wagner, a Republican who was formerly mayor of Irvine and a state Assembly member, represents the Third District of Orange County.
Wagner is urging his constituents to get their shots: "I continue to encourage everybody to get vaccinated if they can."