Minnesota Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen has joined a federal court case that seeks to halt COVID vaccinations for children, siding with a group whose founder participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Jensen, a Chaska family physician and former state senator, is one of 10 individuals who signed a petition by a group of right-leaning doctors called America's Frontline Doctors. They are seeking a temporary restraining order to keep the federal government from authorizing what they call an "experimental biological agent" that could harm children.

In an interview Wednesday, Jensen said he wants to see vaccinations aimed at children paused "so that the status quo can be maintained until we have a chance to have a broader, more robust discussion."

"I think that's very appropriate because we don't have the same level of data for kids under 16," Jensen said. "And we've seen the data come through that indicate clearly that the risk for COVID-19 for kids under the age of 16 is dramatically less than it is for the more vulnerable population over the age of 70."

The 80-page petition, filed in the Northern District of Alabama last week, asks a judge to block the FDA's emergency authorization for the vaccine in children younger than 16. The plaintiffs allege the risk of side effects, or even death, far outweighs the chance that children will die of complications from the coronavirus.

The petition labels the COVID-19 vaccine — of which there are multiple versions — as "experimental."

While COVID-19 vaccines have received only emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration rather than full approval, state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said they have had rigorous testing and were extended to younger people only after clinical trials were conducted in that age group.

"I feel very comfortable about the vaccines but just want to acknowledge that there's been a very thoughtful process in terms of rolling out the vaccines and looking at their safety in the younger population," Ehresmann said.

While most children have mild or no symptoms from infections, some have suffered lingering health effects, said Dr. Nathan Chomilo, a pediatrician and state vaccine equity director. The idea that the virus represents no threat to them "can perpetuate harm and risk to our children" and spread COVID through them to others, he said.

"Children are part of our communities, and if we want to get our overall society out of the pandemic, it is important to get everyone vaccinated so the virus does not have a reservoir to go to," Chomilo said.

In the court petition, Jensen is cited as believing that it would be "reckless to subject" anyone younger than 16 to "the experimental COVID-19 vaccine." Using "coercion to mandate the participation of healthy young people who are at a statistical zero risk" also could reduce public trust in all vaccines, Jensen added.

A spokesperson for America's Frontline Doctors defended the data in its court petition as "factual and meticulously referenced and footnoted."

It cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as showing "children are at a statistical zero" risk of death or danger from COVID-19 and also points to the government's Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System in suggesting that vaccines are linked to thousands of deaths this year.

But a recent Reuters fact check of a similar claim concluded that the system accepts reports of any adverse event regardless of whether there is proof it was caused by a vaccine. The CDC also said this month that "a review of available clinical information" has not established a link between COVID-19 vaccines and deaths.

Jensen's criticism of state and federal responses to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a major focus of his gubernatorial bid, which he launched in March.

One month after the virus began spreading in Minnesota last year, Jensen questioned whether health officials inflated the number of COVID-19 deaths, landing him interviews on Fox News and attracting followers of the QAnon movement.

Such remarks later led to complaints to the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice, but the board later concluded its investigation without taking action on his medical license.

"Scott Jensen has spent over a year pushing dangerous conspiracy theories and peddling misinformation to the detriment of Minnesotans," said Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin in a statement Wednesday. "Now he's joined a fringe group of right-wing doctors and January 6th insurrectionists to spread dangerous lies that will only harm public health."

Simone Gold, who founded the America's Frontline Doctors group leading the federal petition that Jensen joined, was arrested earlier this year on federal criminal charges for participating in the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol building. Gold previously confirmed to the Washington Post that she was pictured in FBI and police bulletins seeking information about those present during the insurrection.

Jensen said Wednesday that he befriended Gold about a year ago and joined her court petition at her request.

He said that he "honestly didn't know" she had been charged in connection with the Capitol riot and never discussed the events of Jan. 6 with her.

Jensen called Democrats who are accusing him of spreading conspiracy theories "desperate" but acknowledged Republican and DFL opponents alike likely would cite his statements on the pandemic in his campaign for governor.

"I think for me the question is going to be: Was I on point? Was I rational? Was I a COVID denier? Did I intentionally phone in conspiracy theories?"

"I think it'll hang around," Jensen said. "But I think it is going to be far enough away that Minnesotans are going to demand a stronger focus on public safety and what are we doing for our kids."

Staff writer Jeremy Olson contributed to this report.

Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755

Twitter: @smontemayor