Hiltzik: The anti-vaxxers are flooding the Damar Hamlin case

The on-field collapse of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin on Jan. 2 has prompted a wave of uplifting public response — not just thoughts and prayers for the player and concern for his family, but millions of dollars in contributions to his charity game.

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

Before we continue to scrutinize this wave of ignorance, let’s lay out what learned and legitimate medical experts think.

For anti-vaxxers, it’s always about the vaccines. It has always been about the vaccines. It will always be about the vaccines.

-David Gorski, MD

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

Doctors have concluded that Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest on the track, which may have been due to another condition. But there is absolutely no indication that Hamlin’s condition had anything to do with a covid vaccination, or whether he was vaccinated.

Nonetheless, the anti-vax crowd piled in. Quickly away was far-right blowhard Charlie Kirk, who tweeted: “This is a tragic and all-too-familiar sight right now: Athletes fall suddenly.

For those not steeped in anti-vax talking points, this was a clear reference to a new narrative in that community that the covid vaccines have led to legions of young and seemingly healthy individuals, especially athletes, dropped dead for no reason other than that they were supposedly recently vaccinated. There’s even a video titled “Died Suddenly” making the rounds in the fever swamp.

Drew Pinsky, whose medical career has traced a path from respected doctor to individual who plays one on television, weighed in with a similar tweet: “So disturbing. Another athlete who fell suddenly.”

To serious medical authorities who have followed the anti-vaccination movement, none of this has come as a surprise.

The COVID pandemic has been politicized by partisan ideologues from the very beginning, starting with Trump aides at the State Department exploiting the baseless 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 tripping over each other to push increasingly stupid conspiracy theories about the virus and the pandemic.

They have 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 have campaigned against anti-pandemic policies from mask use to vaccination mandates. American lives have hung in the balance, but that hasn’t stopped them.

Debunkers of pseudoscience have had to work overtime to keep track of all the conspiracy theories and push back where they can. No one is surprised that the anti-vaccine lobby jumped in the pool.

“With the rollout of covid-19 vaccines two years ago, those of us familiar with the anti-vaccine movement predicted that anti-vaxxers would weaponize every death that occurred within a month of vaccines, because that’s what they did,” wrote David Gorski , a veteran debunker, following Hamlin’s injury. “We were right, of course, as the claims of a ‘vaccine holocaust’ were on full display within weeks to months of the mass vaccination program really getting underway two years ago.

He adds: “For anti-vaxxers, it’s always about the vaccines. It is always was about the vaccines. It always will be about the vaccines.”

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

In these circumstances, it would be useful to examine the “sudden death” claim and see how hopelessly inconsistent the evidence is for it. As it happens—also unsurprisingly—Tucker Carlson of Fox News is here to give us the opportunity to refute a baseless claim.

Carlson went on the air Jan. 3, the very day after Hamlin’s injury, with a report headlined, “Why is there an increase in young athletes with heart problems?”

This was a classic case of putting the cart before the horse, as there is no validated evidence of “an increase in young athletes with heart problems.”

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 healthy COVID patients not to take them — advice that flies in the face of the medical establishment.

Carlson introduced McCullough as a co-author of an “actual study” that “looked at” the so-called trend of cardiac death among athletes in European sports leagues. He said McCullough found that since the COVID vaccination campaign began, “there have been more than 1,500 total cardiac arrests in these leagues, and two-thirds of those were fatal.”

A couple of things about Carlson’s claims. His reference was to a letter to the editor that McCullough and Panagis Polykretis, an “independent researcher” from Florence, Italy, published Dec. 22 in the Scandinavian Journal of Immunology. It is not a peer-reviewed article.

They didn’t look at the trend, at least not to the extent of compiling their own data and analyzing 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 were fatal.”

Their source was a post on a blog called Good Science, where the proprietors identify themselves as “a small team of investigators, news editors, journalists and truth-seekers … who discover information that we can investigate. It doesn’t matter who we are.”

The post did not say that 1,598 athletes went into cardiac arrest, including 1,100 who died. Nor are the numbers limited to “European sports leagues” or even active athletes. It seems to have swept up news clippings not only from Europe, but the US, Canada, Africa and Asia.

Rather, it is a collection of unverified media reports “of mainly young athletes who had major medical problems in 2021/2022 after receiving one or more COVID vaccines.”

The list, which may have been expanded since it was cited by McCullough and Polykretis, is now up to 1,616 cases, including 1,114 deaths. The links to covid vaccinations are largely unfounded. Nor do all the quotes involve cardiac arrest. Nor do all the cases concern young people.

Of the cited cases, only around 500 mention heart problems or cardiac arrest. At least 45 mention cancer or tumors. Fewer than 400 mention vaccines or vaccination at all, sometimes only to mention that the victim encouraged other people to receive the vaccine.

As for their apparent youth, only about 1,000 of these citations mention ages in their teens, twenties, or thirties; more than 500 apply to people who were 40 years of age or older. Among those on the list is baseball legend Hank Aaron, who died at the age of 86.

Quite obviously, the numbers McCullough, Polykretis and Carlson cite are not apt to prove anything. On the other side is the work of, among other credible sources, the Commonwealth Fund, an established health grant-making organization that does not hide its identity or that of its principals behind the claim that “it doesn’t matter who we are.”

In sum, Carlson jumped on the Hamlin injury to advance a thoroughly dubious cause for alarm, pointing the finger at COVID vaccines in a way that stokes public fear and undermines public confidence in a proven treatment for a deadly disease.

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