- 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 an adverse event from a vaccine occurring.
- While there are some risks associated with the COVID-19 vaccines, experts say the benefits far outweigh those risks.
More than two years into 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 potential risks associated with them.
Headlines falsely claiming the vaccines have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries remain rampant on social media and other online sources.
Family medicine physician Dr. Laura Morris, hears these concerns often from her patients.
“I’ve had patients say out loud that you’re more likely to die from the vaccine than you are from COVID, and so there’s clearly a lot of intentional, false information that’s out there on social media platforms, and the places where people do their quote ‘research,'” she said.
Morris, who’s also the co-chair of the University of Missouri Health Care vaccine committee, engages with these patients and points them to reputable sources of information to assure them that the vaccine is safe and that in fact, the risk of dying from COVID-19 is exponentially higher.
“The deaths that can be tied to an adverse reaction from the vaccine are exceedingly rare,” she said. “You are, however, more likely to die of COVID this year and last year than almost anything else.”
Vaccine misinformation distributed across social media and other sites comes from a number of sources, many of which are not credible and blatantly false. However, as is often the case with misinformation, some claims gain traction because they begin with a kernel of truth.
Many sources of false information will often cite the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS).
VAERS was established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1990 as an early warning system to detect potential safety issues with vaccines. It allows anyone to report adverse effects experienced after receiving any vaccine, including the COVID-19 vaccines.
However, this does not mean the vaccine caused these deaths.
“VAERS is unique in that it’s a system that accepts reports from anyone,” Morris said. “It can be a doctor or a hospital or a health department that reports a death that is timed after a vaccine, or it can be a patient or a family member of someone who had an adverse reaction or just had a reaction.”
“So it can be that deaths are reported that are completely unrelated,” she continued. “Deaths can also be reported that are actually false or that are clearly unrelated, but are reported based on timing or even based on malicious intent.”
Therefore, these statistics offer no insight into the actual cause of death in these cases.
The death of a 90-year-old nursing patient a few days after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, for example, would be reported to VAERS. However, there are a number of other causes this person could have died from.
“So the reports initially are correlation, not causation,” Morris said.
Scientists investigate and pore through every individual report of death to verify the true cause.
To date, the CDC has verified nine deaths causally associated with the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine. These deaths are attributed to thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS), which causes blood clots in large blood vessels and low platelets.
“So what I tell my patients is that you’re more likely to die from being struck by lightning than you are to die from an adverse reaction to this vaccine,” Morris said.
According to the National Weather Service, 17 people died by lightning strikes in the United States in 2020.
Because of the nine deaths associated with the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine, the CDC recommended in December 2021 that Americans choose the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) over Johnson & Johnson.
As of January 6, 2022, the CDC and FDA have 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 exceedingly rare, and I would still say that there is benefit to that vaccine, but with our supply in the United States, in particular being 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 garnered much attention is the risk of myocarditis and pericarditis following the administration of an mRNA vaccine.
Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart muscle; pericarditis is inflammation of the outer lining of the heart.
“It’s actually the immune system’s reaction to the vaccine,” Morris explained. “It causes a little bit of inflammation throughout the body, and in some cases that can be misdirected toward 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 that are reported are patients under the age of 30,” Morris said. “It happens more often in males, although it can happen in females, as well. It’s usually after the second dose of vaccine, and happens within a couple of weeks.”
However, she notes that in these instances, myocarditis usually resolved within a couple of weeks.
“Myocarditis could be something that’s really mild or temporary, and it’s something that’s definitely treatable,” said Dr. Nicolas Hernandez, a family medicine physician with Northwell Plainview Hospital in Long Island, New York.
Additionally, it’s important to note that myocarditis can result from any viral infection, including COVID-19.
“The risk of getting myocarditis after having [COVID] is actually several times higher than the risk of myocarditis after a COVID vaccine,” Morris explained. “Given what we know right now about the prevalence and the spread of COVID-19… in our community, that risk is not something that should keep you from getting the vaccine.”
Additionally, as with any vaccine, there’s the risk of anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction). According to
Anaphylaxis is also something that’s treatable.
“We could always treat it with an epinephrine pen or get additional supportive treatment for you,” 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 kind of like a Russian roulette,” Hernandez said. “You don’t know what the virus is going to do to you when you have it. There’s long COVID, and we know that COVID can cause a lot of multi-system effects to your body that may or may not be irreversible. But we have the vaccine. You have a way of protecting yourself in front of this deadly virus.”
Finally, Morris said she hopes that rather than focusing on the number of deaths the vaccine has caused, there will be more focus on the number of deaths that the vaccine has actually prevented.
“Nine deaths is significant,” she said. “Every single death is significant, however, we are going to approach a million Americans dying of COVID-19 sometime probably in the coming year. But we have prevented hundreds of thousands of additional deaths from happening with the vaccine.”