- Misinformation continues to spread about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.
- The risk of dying from COVID-19 is exponentially higher than the risk of a vaccine side effect.
- While there are some risks associated with the COVID-19 vaccines, experts say the benefits far outweigh those risks.
More than two years after the pandemic, misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines that protect against it continues to spread.
Much of this misinformation focuses on the safety of the vaccines and the potential risks associated with them.
Headlines falsely claiming that the vaccines have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries continue to run rampant on social media and other online sources.
GP doctor dr. Laura Morris, often hears these concerns from her patients.
“I’ve had patients say out loud that you’re more likely to die from the vaccine than from COVID, and so there’s clearly a lot of deliberate, false information out there on social media platforms and the places people do their quote ‘research’ “, she said.
Morris, who is also the co-chair of the vaccine committee at the University of Missouri Health Care, liaises with these patients and points them to reliable sources of information to reassure them that the vaccine is safe and that, in fact, the risk of dying from COVID-19 is exponentially higher.
“The deaths that could be linked to a vaccine side effect are extremely rare,” she said. “However, you are more likely to die from COVID this year and last year than almost anything else.”
Disinformation about vaccines spread through social media and other sites comes from a number of sources, many of which are not credible and downright untrue. However, as is often the case with misinformation, some claims gain traction because they start with a kernel of truth.
Many sources of false information often cite the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS).
VAERS was founded in 1990 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an early warning system to detect potential vaccine safety issues. Allows anyone to report side effects experienced after receiving any vaccine, including the COVID-19 vaccines.
However, this does not mean that the vaccine caused these deaths.
“VAERS is unique in that it is a system that accepts reports from anyone,” Morris says. “It could be a doctor or a hospital or a health department reporting a death that was timed after a vaccine, or it could be a patient or a relative of someone who has had an adverse reaction or just had a reaction.”
“So there may be deaths reported that are completely unrelated,” she continued. “Deaths may also be reported that are actually false or clearly unrelated, but are reported based on timing or even based on malicious intent.”
Therefore, these statistics do not provide insight into the actual cause of death in these cases.
For example, the death of a 90-year-old nurse would be reported to VAERS a few days after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. However, there are a number of other causes from which this person could have died.
“So the reports are primarily correlation, not causation,” Morris said.
Scientists examine and fathom each individual death notice to verify the true cause.
To date, the CDC has verified nine deaths causally related to the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine. These deaths are attributed to thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS), which causes blood clots in large vessels and low platelets.
“So what I tell my patients is that you are more likely to die from a lightning strike than from an adverse reaction to this vaccine,” Morris said.
According to the National Weather Service, 17 people died from lightning strikes in the United States in 2020.
Because of the nine deaths linked to the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine, the CDC recommended in December 2021 that Americans prefer the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) over Johnson & Johnson.
As of January 6, 2022, the CDC and FDA identified 57 confirmed reports of people who received the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine and later developed TTS.
More than 17.7 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered in the United States.
“This is extremely rare, and I would still say there are benefits to that vaccine, but with our offerings in the United States, especially what it is, there are safer options,” Morris said.
As with any vaccine, there are risks associated with the COVID-19 vaccines that are real. However, they are rare.
One adverse effect that has received much attention is the risk of: myocarditis and pericarditis following administration of an mRNA vaccine.
Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart muscle; Pericarditis is inflammation of the outer layer of the heart.
“It’s basically the immune system’s response to the vaccine,” Morris explains. “It causes a little bit of inflammation throughout the body, and in some cases that can be misdirected to the heart muscle.”
To date, the CDC and FDA have:
Symptoms of myocarditis include chest pain, irregular heartbeat, and shortness of breath. Young people seem to be most at risk.
“Most of the cases reported are patients under the age of 30,” Morris said. “It’s more common in men, although it can happen in women too. It’s usually after the second dose of vaccine and happens within a few weeks.”
However, she notes that in these cases, myocarditis usually cleared up within a few weeks.
“Myocarditis can be something that’s really mild or temporary, and it’s definitely treatable,” said dr. Nicolas Hernandez, primary care physician at Northwell Plainview Hospital in Long Island, New York.
In addition, it is important to note that myocarditis can result from any viral infection, including COVID-19.
“The risk of getting myocarditis after a [COVID] is actually several times higher than the risk of myocarditis after a COVID vaccine,” explains Morris. “Given what we now know about the prevalence and spread of COVID-19… in our community, that risk is not something that should stop you from getting the vaccine.”
In addition, as with any vaccine, there is a risk of anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction). According to
Anaphylaxis is also something that is treatable.
“We can always treat it with an epinephrine pen or get you some additional supportive treatment,” Hernandez said.
The bottom line, experts say, is that there are always some risks associated with any vaccine, but the benefits far outweigh those risks.
“I’ve always called COVID a kind of Russian roulette,” Hernandez said. “You don’t know what the virus is going to do to you if you have it. COVID has been going on for a long time and we know that COVID can cause many multi-system effects on your body that may or may not be irreversible. But we have the vaccine. You have a way of protecting yourself from this deadly virus.”
Finally, Morris said she hopes that instead of focusing on the number of deaths the vaccine has caused, there will be more focus on the number of deaths the vaccine has actually prevented.
“Nine deaths is significant,” she said. “Every death is significant, but we will probably approach one million Americans dying from COVID-19 in the next year. But we have prevented hundreds of thousands of additional deaths with the vaccine.”