CONTRIBUTORS

The Damar Hamlin injury provokes a wave of ignorant anti-vaccine propaganda

Michael Hiltzik
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The on-field collapse of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin on Jan. 2 has produced a wave of uplifting public responses — not only thoughts and prayers for the player and solicitude for his family but millions of dollars in contributions to his charity toy drive.

It also has provoked a wave of responses not so refreshing: utterly unfounded conjecture that his collapse had something to do with the COVID-19 vaccines.

Before proceeding to scrutinize this surge of ignorance, let's set forth what learned and legitimate medical experts are thinking.

A vigil is displayed at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center for football player Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills after he collapsed following a tackle during the game against the Cincinnati Bengals and was transported by ambulance to the hospital on Jan. 3, 2023, in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Dylan Buell/Getty Images/TNS)

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Although the actual cause of Hamlin's collapse after a violent tackle hasn't been established, the experts have focused on a phenomenon known as commotio cordis, in which a sharp blow to the chest, delivered at the right moment, can cause arrhythmia, or a potentially fatal irregular heartbeat.

Doctors have concluded that Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on the field, which may have been due to some other condition. But there are absolutely no indications that Hamlin's condition had anything to do with a COVID-19 vaccination, or even whether he was vaccinated.

Nevertheless, the anti-vax crowd piled in. Quick off the mark was right-wing blowhard Charlie Kirk, who tweeted, "This is a tragic and all too familiar sight right now: Athletes dropping suddenly."

For those not steeped in anti-vax talking points, this was a clear reference to an emerging narrative in that community that the COVID-19 vaccines have led to legions of young and apparently healthy individuals, especially athletes, dropping dead for no reason except that they supposedly were recently vaccinated. There's even a video titled "Died Suddenly" making its rounds in the fever swamp.

Drew Pinsky, whose medical career has traced a trajectory from respected physician to individual who plays one on TV, weighed in with a similar tweet: "So disturbing. Another athlete who dropped suddenly."

To serious medical authorities who have been following the anti-vaccination movement, none of this has been surprising.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been politicized by partisan ideologues from the very outset, starting with Donald Trump aides at the State Department exploiting the groundless hypothesis that the virus originated in a Chinese laboratory to gain geopolitical advantage over that country. (In a sad development, the respected journalistic institution ProPublica has been willing to squander its credibility by promoting the theory.)

Trump and other Republicans (I'm looking at you, Ron DeSantis) have been jostling each other to push increasingly loony conspiracy theories about the virus and the pandemic.

They've vilified public officials who have devoted their careers to protecting Americans from disease, not least Anthony Fauci, the recently retired director of the National Academy of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. They've campaigned against anti-pandemic policies from mask wearing to vaccination mandates. American lives have been hanging in the balance, but that hasn't stopped them.

Pseudoscience debunkers have had to work overtime to keep track of all the conspiracy theories and push back where they can. None is surprised that the anti-vaccine lobby jumped into the pool.

"With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines two years ago, those of us who knew the antivaccine movement predicted that anti-vaxxers would weaponize every death that occurred within even a month of vaccines because that's what they did," wrote David Gorski, a veteran debunker, after Hamlin's injury. "We were, of course, correct, as claims of a 'vaccine holocaust' were on full display within weeks to a few months after the mass vaccination program really got underway two years ago."

He adds, "To anti-vaxxers, it's always about the vaccines. It's always been about the vaccines. It always will be about the vaccines."

The context is critically important here. The COVID-19 vaccines have saved lives and preserved the health of millions of infected people. The Commonwealth Fund has estimated that from December 2020 through November 2022, the vaccines "prevented more than 18.5 million additional hospitalizations and 3.2 million additional deaths. Without vaccination, there would have been nearly 120 million more COVID-19 infections."

Beyond bogus: Under the circumstances, it will be useful to examine the "died suddenly" claim and see how hopelessly threadbare the evidence is for it. As it happens — also unsurprisingly — Tucker Carlson of Fox News is right here to provide us with the opportunity to refute a groundless claim.

Carlson went on the air Jan. 3, the very day after Hamlin's injury, with a report headlined "Why is there a rise in young athletes with heart issues?"

This was a classic case of putting the cart before the horse, since there is no validated evidence for "a rise in young athletes with heart issues."

The star of Carlson's segment was Peter McCullough, a noted anti-vaxxer who has questioned the safety of COVID-19 vaccines and advised pregnant women and recovered COVID-19 patients not to take them — advice that runs counter to that of the medical establishment.

Carlson introduced McCullough as the co-author of an "actual study" that "looked into" the so-called trend of cardiac deaths among athletes in European sports leagues. He said that McCullough found that since the COVID-19 vaccination campaign began, "there've been more than 1,500 total cardiac arrests in those leagues, and two-thirds of those were fatal."

A few things about Carlson's assertions. His reference was to a letter to the editor that McCullough and Panagis Polykretis, an "independent researcher" from Florence, Italy, published on Dec. 22 in the Scandinavian Journal of Immunology. It isn't a peer-reviewed paper.

They didn't "look into" the trend, at least not to the extent of compiling their own data and parsing it to validate the cases. Their letter to the journal states that "from January 2021 to the time of writing, 1,598 athletes suffered cardiac arrest, 1,101 of which with deadly outcome."

Their source was a post on a blog called Good Sciencing, the proprietors of which identify themselves as "a small team of investigators, news editors, journalists, and truth seekers ... who are discovering pieces of information that we can investigate. It doesn't really matter who we are."

The post did not say that 1,598 athletes suffered cardiac arrest, including 1,100 who died. Nor are its figures limited to "European sports leagues" or even active athletes. It appears to have swept up news snippets not only from Europe, but also the U.S., Canada, Africa and Asia.

Rather, it's a collection of unverified media reports "of mainly young athletes who had major medical issues in 2021/2022 after receiving one or more COVID vaccines."

The list, which may have been augmented since it was cited by McCullough and Polykretis, is now up to 1,616 cases, including 1,114 deaths. The connections to COVID-19 vaccinations are largely unsubstantiated. Nor do all the citations involve cardiac arrest. Nor do all the cases involve young persons.

The post includes suicides, drug overdoses and at least one epileptic seizure.

Only about 500 of the citations mention cardiac issues or cardiac arrest. At least 45 mention cancer or tumors. Fewer than 400 bear any mention of vaccines or vaccination at all, sometimes merely to mention that the victim urged other people to receive the vaccine.

As for their ostensible youth, more than 500 of the citations were about people who were 40 or older. Among those on the list is baseball legend Hank Aaron, who died at the age of 86.

Quite obviously, as a measure of post-vaccination cardiac cases this is beyond bogus and not fit to prove anything, contrary to the claims of McCullough, Polykretis and Carlson. On the other side is the work of credible sources such as the Commonwealth Fund, an established health care grant-making organization that doesn't hide its identity or those of its principals behind the assertion that "it doesn't really matter who we are."

In sum, the anti-vaxxers have jumped on the Hamlin injury to promote a thoroughly dubious cause for alarm, pointing the finger at COVID-19 vaccines in a way that stokes public fears and undermines public confidence in a proven treatment for a deadly disease. Shameful.

— Michael Hiltzik is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.