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Vaccine-hesitant groups are exploiting the deaths of people who died of old age or underlying health conditions after receiving the COVID-19 shot to undermine trust in the vaccines. Westend61/Getty Images
  • Scientists say some deaths will occur during the COVID-19 vaccination rollout, but these deaths would have happened for other reasons and are unrelated to the vaccine.
  • The newness of the virus and uncertainty about COVID-19 make people more susceptible to misinformation, experts say.
  • People can implement strategies, including research and corroboration, to ensure the information they’re reading about the COVID-19 vaccines is credible.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

Vaccine-hesitant groups are peddling misinformation and conspiracy theories aimed at eroding trust in the COVID-19 vaccine and the public health systems that are disseminating them.

In the latest attempts to undermine the vaccination rollout, activists are exploiting the deaths of those who died of old age or underlying health conditions after receiving the shot.

In some instances, vaccine-hesitant activists are manufacturing stories of deaths related to the vaccine that never happened.

These groups are also latching onto reports of real deaths following the shot, blaming the vaccine and disregarding medical information that other causes are to blame.

“The vaccine has been disproportionately given to the population that is disproportionately dying,” said Dr. Jill Foster, a pediatric infectious disease physician with the University of Minnesota Medical School and M Health Fairview, who studies vaccine misinformation.

“Older people in nursing homes are being prioritized for the vaccine because they’re the ones that are dying at the highest rates from COVID,” Foster said. “But when you think of a population that is mainly over the age of 75 and debilitated already because they’re in a nursing home, that’s a group of people who are dying at a higher rate already.”

Ignoring that important context is a strategy vaccine-hesitant groups have been using for years, said Kolina Koltai, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow and misinformation researcher at the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington.

“This is the difficult part because most people think misinformation just means something is fake, but there are a lot ways that misinformation can take shape,” she told Healthline.

“On the surface, a lot of anti-vaccine misinformation can be very convincing because they [activists] can take a quote or a bit of misinformation and isolate it, focusing on just that bit and removing all the other context,” Koltai added.

She cited the example of a Facebook post that was shared by many vaccine-hesitant advocates that included a quote from Dr. Kelly Moore, deputy director of the Immunization Action Coalition.

The meme included a photo of an ill, older adult with Moore’s statement: “One of the things we want to make sure people understand is that they should not be unnecessarily alarmed if there are reports, once we start vaccinating, of someone or multiple people dying within a day or two of their vaccination who are residents of a long-term care facility.”

But there was more to Moore’s statement that the meme left out, Reuters reported. She went on to say, “That would be something we would expect, as a normal occurrence, because people die frequently in nursing homes.”

The additional context clarifies that Moore is saying deaths in nursing homes that have nothing to do with the vaccine should be expected.

“It’s misaligning the narrative, and that’s a misinformation tactic that’s tricky because the quote itself is true, but the meaning of the quote has been totally changed,” Koltai explained.

In certain cases, vaccine-hesitant groups are simply making up fake stories of deaths tied to the vaccine.

In December, multiple social media posts falsely claimed a nurse in Alabama died after receiving the shot. Health officials responded by calling every hospital in the state that had administered COVID-19 vaccines and confirmed in a statement that no persons who received a vaccine in Alabama had died.

Well-known vaccine-hesitant activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been fueling fears about the COVID-19 vaccine following reports of deaths after the vaccine rollout began in Europe.

In a blog post, Kennedy cast doubt on Danish health authorities who said the deaths of two people who had received the shot were due to old age and underlying lung disease.

“Coincidence is turning out to be quite lethal to COVID vaccine recipients,” Kennedy wrote.

While these headlines and arguments make an emotional grab, we as individuals “need to look deeper at the science and the data,” said Panayiota Kendeou, PhD, a professor in the department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota.

Kendeou is a contributing author of The COVID-19 Vaccine Communication Handbook, a practical guide created by an international group of scientists aimed at improving vaccine communication and countering misinformation.

According to the handbook, “if we vaccinate 10 million people and the vaccine had no side effects whatsoever, then over the following two months we can nonetheless expect that 4,025 of those vaccinated will have a heart attack, 3,975 will have a stroke, 9,500 will have a new diagnosis of cancer, and 14,000 will, unfortunately, die.”

“The key is that statistically bad things will happen to a small percentage of people after vaccination even if the vaccines are perfectly safe,” Dr. Robert Wachter, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told Healthline in an email.

“We have to trust the clinical trials, which look carefully for signals that there are excess deaths of any kind in the group that received vaccine versus placebo,” he said.

Wachter determined these figures cited in the COVID-19 communication handbook by using CDC estimates of yearly deaths.

The vaccine-hesitant movement is certainly not new. For decades, activists have perpetuated false claims that childhood vaccines such as the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, cause autism.

Yet experts who study vaccine misinformation say that most people who aren’t parents of young children might not have thought much about the safety of vaccines until this year.

However, the pandemic has created a perfect storm for vaccine misinformation to go mainstream, said Koltai, who has been studying the vaccine-hesitant movement since 2015.

“We’re only a year into knowing that COVID-19 exists,” she said. “There’s so much we don’t know, and things are constantly changing and that can make us feel very uncertain. Uncertainty breeds doubt and worry and makes us so much more prone to misinformation.”

There’s also the fact that the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as the overall pandemic and response, has been politicized.

“Politicizing topics like this inevitably politicizes the science behind it. So, as a result, we are where we’re at now, where objective scientific information that should not be up for debate ends up being debated in political arenas,” Kendeou explained.

A big source of mistrust in the COVID-19 vaccine comes from the speed at which it was produced.

A recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 27 percent of Americans said they “probably or definitely would not get a COVID-19 vaccine,” even if it were free and deemed safe by scientists.

The major concerns for hesitancy included worries over side effects and that the vaccine is too new. Also cited was a lack of trust in the government to ensure the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness.

Foster countered the arguments by pointing to work scientists had already been doing on vaccines for other serious infectious diseases such as Zika and Ebola.

“These weren’t big issues in the U.S., so there wasn’t the drive and the funding here to push these vaccines over the finish line,” she said, “and then COVID came along, and here we have these new technologies that are very close to the finish line but not quite there yet. So, it was just a matter of plugging in the COVID component and doing the testing.”

The first step in combating misinformation is acknowledging that we’re all susceptible to it, Kendeou said.

“We will all come across information and disinformation and cannot always tell what is true and what is not,” she said. “If we accept this to be the position that we’re in, then that creates a different stance toward interacting with the information we see.”

If you see a headline or social media post about the COVID-19 vaccine that seems sensational or that you’re unsure is credible, experts recommend first pausing.

“Before you click share, stop and think for a few seconds,” Koltai said. “The goal here is to not further spread misinformation. So before sharing, pause and see if you can do some of your own research to find out whether or not it’s true.”

One way to do this is through corroboration.

“Search to see if other people are reporting this and saying the same thing,” Koltai said. “Look to see if these sources are reputable or if it’s on a random blog you’ve never heard of before.”

This creates a method for people to start doing their own debunking.

“And in a lot of instances, the debunking is already out there,” Koltai said. “So you can search for something and oftentimes find an explanation for what you’re looking for. Then you can search that explanation and see if other reputable sources have corroborated it.”

Finally, Kendeou recommended having a healthy dose of skepticism.

“Not skeptical to the point of being conspirational, but don’t accept everything at face value,” she said. “Ask important questions so you can get more answers and not just follow information or sources for the sake of doing so.”

Koltai added, “Vaccine misinformation is not going away anytime soon. Expect this to go on for many months going forward. Trusting your healthcare provider and experts in the field is incredibly critical right now, even more so than ever.”