By Katelyn Jetelina and Kristen Panthagani, MD, PhD
Vaccine rumors continue to swirl, and distrust in vaccines remains. The latest onslaught comes from blogs and social media around heart problems and sudden deaths following Covid-19 vaccination, particularly among young adults.
This rumor has been a constant theme since vaccine roll-out, but has recently bubbled to the surface due to a constellation of events: external medical review in Florida on vaccines, videos released (called Died Suddenly), the death of a young prominent soccer reporter, the NFL cardiac arrest incident, the death of Lisa Marie Presley. In fact, every week “sudden deaths” that aren’t remotely related to vaccines go viral.
To be very clear: We have more evidence than for any other vaccine or disease in the history of humans that the benefits of Covid-19 vaccines greatly outweigh the risks.
I partnered with Dr. Kristen Panthagani, physician-scientist and author of You Can Know Things, to tackle this topic. This post is long, but we hope it’s a comprehensive, one stop shop to address the majority of rumors spreading now and in the future.
Here we go.
Deaths by vaccination status: It’s not even close
In fact, we see the opposite. The U.K. Health Security Agency recently released data evaluating all deaths (Covid-19, car accidents, strokes, etc.) in the U.K. by vaccination status, after adjusting for age. This is powerful data because it allows us to remove noise from the debate—it doesn’t matter if the death was “with” or “from” Covid or how the person died.
Below is the data visually displayed. And, the story is clear: vaccines save lives. (The impact has changed over time thanks to survivor bias, an increase in vaccination rates, and infection-induced immunity.)
What about excess deaths among young adults?
This assumption leaves out one key detail — a pandemic. The Delta variant slammed the U.S. during the third quarter of 2021, killing people of all ages.
A new study assessed patterns of excess deaths and Covid-19 specific deaths across time, by state, region, and age. Scientists found that excess deaths increased starting in spring 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, well before vaccines were introduced into the population. Furthermore, excess deaths tightly mirror Covid deaths, even for working-age adults.
(If you’re wondering why there’s a gap between Covid deaths and excess deaths — according to the study’s lead author, Dr. Jeremy Faust, it’s likely “a combination of non-medical deaths like accidental overdose and also, we strongly believe, things like heart attacks that were actually instigated by Covid.”)
The tight link between Covid and excess deaths was seen even in Florida (see red arrow below), which has recently stopped recommending mRNA vaccines for men aged 18-39 based on a deeply flawed analysis.
We can also look at specific deaths, like those classified under “diseases of the circulatory system”— which includes things like heart attacks and blood clots in the lung. Circulatory system deaths in 18-39 year-olds were decreasing before the pandemic, but then spiked sharply during the pre-vaccination period. Vaccination roll-outs correlated with a stunning reversal of this trend, as seen in the graph below.
What about young athletes?
Then there was the tragic injury in the NFL—Hamlin’s heart stopped after a hit to the chest. Within minutes, rumors flooded an information void to make the conversation about vaccines and death.
In particular, one incorrect statistic was quickly circulated on social media: more athletes died in the last year than have died in the last 38 years.
Where did this statistic come from? After digging, it surfaced that this came from a published letter by Peter McCullough in which he compared sudden cardiac deaths (SCD) in athletes from two data sets from two time periods. This study design can work in epidemiology; however, it has to be done very carefully to make sure we compare apples to apples. McCullough did not do it carefully and compared oranges to apples: compared young vs. old, compared different definitions of SCD, included people who didn’t even die from SCD in the first place, included some people who weren’t athletes, and included some people who didn’t even die.
It was a mess of an analysis. But that didn’t matter because the seed was sown. The rumor filled an information void, and it went viral.
What about blood clots?
We could write a whole post refuting this video (you can read this one). But a few quick things to take away:
- If you simply Google the sudden death headlines in the video, it’s clear they weren’t from the vaccine. One person died in a car accident. Another died before the Covid-19 vaccines were even available. Another collapsed during a basketball game (before Covid-19 vaccines), but never died.
- The video ultimately alleged mRNA vaccines are killing people via blood clots. As “evidence” it showed images of blood clots being removed from the blood vessels of cadavers. However, it fails to mention that it is totally normal for blood to clot after death.
- The video also showed images of a huge blood clot being surgically removed from a vessel in the lung (a pulmonary embolism), suggesting this clot was caused by a vaccine. However, the footage they used was stolen from a 2019 medical education video—showing not only that this clot was not caused by a Covid vaccine (Covid vaccines didn’t exist in 2019), but also that major blood clots, even in young people, are a well known phenomenon that pre-dated Covid vaccination.
What about all the personal stories of death after vaccination?
As humans, we are wired to find cause and effect in our lived experiences, and the occurrence of a serious health event within days of vaccination appears to be fool-proof evidence of the negative effects of vaccination to many. But as painful as these stories are to hear, and even more so to experience, the reality is even if everyone had gotten a placebo, these stories are statistically bound to happen. Even if everyone had gotten a placebo shot, there still would be deaths after the shot. In order for there to be no deaths after vaccination, that vaccine would have to not only be safe, but actually prevent all deaths, from every cause.
To understand why, here’s a brief explanation of the post hoc fallacy and why it confuses many when it comes to vaccines:
What about the VAERS data rumors?
In addition to the important nuances outlined in the video above, it’s important to take VAERS with a grain of salt. VAERS is a type of surveillance called “passive.” It’s run on an honor system that is dependent on people providing accurate data, which people knowingly (or unknowingly) don’t do. Because of this, the CDC has several disclaimers plastered throughout their site: “The reports may contain information that is incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable.”
VAERS is imperfect, so we also have “active” vaccine safety surveillance called V-Safe. VAERS coupled with V-safe is incredibly powerful. Monitoring systems aren’t perfect, but they are pretty darn good. In fact, they were able to find some rare, but serious, side effects quickly during the vaccine roll-out.
What are the (validated) serious side effects from the Covid-19 vaccines?
There are true safety signals that have been legitimately linked to Covid-19 vaccines:
- Serious allergic reactions (called anaphylaxis) occurred in 5 out of 1 million vaccine doses. This is readily treatable, but can be life-threatening if not immediately treated.
- The J&J vaccine (not an mRNA vaccine) was linked with a 4 in 1 million chance of a specific type of serious, sometimes fatal blood clot (thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome). The J&J vaccine was also associated with a small elevation in risk of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease that can occur after both infections and vaccination.
- Because of these rare risks that are specific to the J&J vaccine, mRNA vaccines are now recommended instead of the J&J vaccine.
- Myocarditis (inflammation of the heart) among young males has been linked to the vaccine. About 100 in 1 million doses result in it, particularly after the second shot. Vaccine-induced myocarditis is less severe than myocarditis from the virus itself, which is helpful context.
- Last week, the FDA and CDC announced they are investigating a possible (but not confirmed) link between the Pfizer bivalent booster vaccine and increased risk of stroke in people older than 65 based on results from one of the surveillance databases. So far, at least four other sources of data have shown no link.
Not all of these vaccine-induced events were linked to death, but some were after intense investigations. For example, nine deaths have been causally linked to the clot complications from the J&J vaccine. In 2021, one study reported eight deaths from vaccine-induced myocarditis.
Weigh risk of vaccines with risk of infection
Covid-19 vaccines have always been safer than infection. One study compared the immediate risks of a Covid-19 vaccine to an infection. With the exception of swollen lymph nodes, infections were far more predictive of heart arrhythmias, heart attacks, myocarditis, and blood clots.
The impact of Covid-19 infection on long-term problems is being uncovered more and more. Unfortunately, we are at the mercy of time for this to play out. But there are already several studies with concerning findings:
- A study in Italy and Spain found excess all-cause mortality related to cardiovascular complications in patients after Covid-19 infection.
- A study in the Lancet found that people infected with SARS-CoV-2 had 3 times the risk of dying over the following year compared with those who remained uninfected. For those aged 60+ years, increased mortality persisted until the end of the first year after infection. It was related to increased risk for heart and/or respiratory causes of death.
- A report from Singapore also found an increase in excess mortality after infection (people with no recent infections had no additional excess deaths). However, it was not linked to cardiovascular events.
Across the globe, Covid-19 vaccines saved more than 20 million lives in the first year.
In the United States specifically, Covid-19 vaccines prevented 18.5 million additional hospitalizations and 3.2 million additional deaths.
Love, YLE and Dr. Panthagani
Kristen Panthagani, MD, PhD is an emergency medicine physician at Yale. In her free time, she is the creator of the medical blog You Can Know Things. You can subscribe to her newsletter here.
“Your Local Epidemiologist (YLE)” is written by Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, MPH PhD—an epidemiologist, data scientist, wife, and mom of two little girls. During the day she works at a nonpartisan health policy think tank and is a senior scientific consultant to a number of organizations, including the CDC. At night she writes this newsletter. Her main goal is to “translate” the ever-evolving public health science so that people will be well equipped to make evidence-based decisions. This newsletter is free thanks to the generous support of fellow YLE community members. To support this effort, subscribe here.
Get the vaccine or not. It is up to the adult person. I got the vaccine and booster shots. I’m fine thank God. Misinformation is getting people to think twice about the vaccine. Make your decision based on medical facts. Fox News isn’t a science lab. Their commentators are not doctors. Listen to a doctor. Listen to your doctor. At least they have some medical background. In the end make your decision based on medical facts not people trying to say vaccines don’t work. Am pretty sure all those news channel employees have the vaccine. Make your decision based on medical facts.
You really think conspiracy lovers want facts?
Refuse All Medical Care Then says
If these crack heads had social media during the days of polio, many of us wouldn’t even exist because our ancestors would’ve died. I’m so over anti-science.
Here’s an idea – if you’re so anti-science never seek medical help. Honesty, I care not about your health or well being. I care about mine. And yes, I’m a liberal but I’m also an asshole that is over all the uneducated BS. Republicans love this world – the uneducated. These elected officials are using culture wars as a smoke screen. Book bans. Drag bans. Going after LGBTQ kids and people. Abortion. Sodomy (which is also anal and oral for heteros so, yeah). While they craft their plans to get rid of social security, Medicare, Medicade, and put in place a 30% sales tax while eliminating taxes on the wealthy. They are doing nothing about rent, home owners insurance, or property taxes. But those evil books and evil gays and evil men in makeup, that is REALLY what is causing all our problems.
The dude says
“I did my own research” = “I’m a f#cking gullible moron more interested in crackpot conspiracy theories than actual science, data, and facts”
The last two years have proven this beyond any doubt.
Deborah Coffey says
Truth is golden. Thank you for continuing to put it out there. Unfortunately, in this country, we’ve got tens of millions of people that don’t WANT the truth anymore and, they’re so used to quickly believing the LIES that they wouldn’t even know the truth if it jumped up and smacked them in the face. I’m so sorry to say that America’s Republican Party has created a post-truth world and I’m worried that this great nation will not survive the LIES.
This is an outstanding compilation of facts regarding the risks of the Covid vaccination. A reasonable person would see this and conclude that the vaccines are safe and effective. Unfortunately, those who are anti-vaccine also tend to be inclined to ignore any factual evidence that contradicts their position. That’s why there are unvaccinated people and why they have been dying in greater numbers than vaxxed people. And it makes sense as more people get Covid and more people get vaccinated, over time the number of vaccinated people who die will increase. But of course, that requires a person to read and comprehend facts. And, among the unvaccinated, that just won’t happen.
Thanks to Flagler Live for providing this information.
Susan Mann says
My 18 year old son died in his sleep from a cardiac arrhythmia of unknown etiology 6 months after getting the Pfizer Covid vaccine. I believe there is a correlation.
Joe D says
Bravo for those speaking from FACTS and DATA, not Rumors an innuendo!
As a Clinical Nurse Specialist and a Certified Nurse Case Manger for a major East Coast University Teaching hospital used as a regional transfer center, during the Pandemic, I (and the rest of the incredible staff) were devastated by the suffering and loss Covid cost families. We also saw the death and serious complications rate PLUMMET once the vaccine(s), became available and used. The exception (sadly) to the drop in serious cases were in the NON-VACCINATED population. I’m all for freedom of choice, but when your freedom of choice to not get vaccinated, not wear a mask, or socially isolate….affects MY RIGHTS not to be infected by a potentially DEADLY virus (over 1 MILLION deaths in the US alone)…full freedom of choice comes into question. I compare it to the right someone might feel to get drunk and then feel justified without consequences to get behind the wheel of a vehicle and kill someone.
And to Ms Susan Mann…my condolences on the loss of your young son. It’s been such a terrible 3 years of grief and sadness!