Fact checking a strange new Covid claim: Athletes dying from vaccines
Former NBA great John Stockton drew national attention earlier this week when he insisted in an interview that “there’s 150 I believe now — it’s over 100 professional athletes dead, professional athletes, the prime of their life, dropping dead that are vaccinated, right on the pitch, right on the field, right on the court.”
On Wednesday, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson got in on the action in an interview with Charlie Kirk, the head of the conservative group Turning Point USA.
“We’ve heard story after story, I mean all these athletes dropping dead on the field,” Johnson said. “But we’re supposed to ignore that. Nothing happening here. Nothing to see. This is a travesty. This is a scandal.”
Johnson’s office offered no specifics to back up his claim Thursday. “The senator has been pressing for transparency in government, especially in our federal health agencies, so that the American people have as much information as possible before they make health care decisions for themselves and their families,” a spokeswoman said.
It isn’t a scandal. Mostly because it’s not happening.
The rumor appears to have begun — like a lot of misinformation these days — from the pro-Trump website Gateway Pundit, which published an “article” on December 6 with this headline: “Report Shows Nearly 300 Athletes Worldwide Collapsed or Suffered Cardiac Arrests after Taking COVID Vaccine This Year — Many Died.”
The “report” on which the Gateway Pundit piece is based comes from a website called “Good Sciencing” — an anonymously-run website that is larded with anti-vaccine pseudoscience. “We are a small team of investigators, news editors, journalists, and truth seekers, now backed up by others, who are discovering pieces of information that we can investigate,” reads the website’s “About” page. “It doesn’t really matter who we are.”
Sourcing aside, it’s worth looking at the claims that these sorts of websites make. Which Factcheck.org did. And found this:
“More than 300 athletes — including students, professionals, amateurs and retirees — from around the world were included. We reviewed publicly available information for each of the 19 professional athletes who either came from or played in the U.S. We found no proof of a causal relationship in any of the cases between the vaccines and the injuries or deaths.”
And there’s also this: “Although Good Sciencing claims COVID-19 vaccines were to blame for the deaths or injuries, the website provides no evidence in most cases — 16 of the 19 — that the athletes and former athletes were even vaccinated.”
What’s happening here is the purposeful and deeply misleading confusion of correlation with causation.
Take the case of baseball great Hank Aaron. Aaron died two weeks after receiving his first dose of the Moderna vaccine. But, according to the Fulton County medical examiner, Aaron, who was 86, died of natural causes.
Another commonly-cited episode by these vaccine conspiracy theorists is the collapse of Denmark’s Christian Eriksen last year during a major European soccer tournament. Immediately after the incident, social media lit up with claims that Eriksen’s collapse was tied to the Covid-19 vaccine. The only problem? Eriksen hadn’t been vaccinated when he collapsed. (Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest on the filed but has since recovered.)
What’s most remarkable to me about these sorts of claims is how easy they are to debunk. A single Google search can reveal that things like the Gateway Pundit “story” or some tweet or Facebook post your uncle sent you are, in fact, total and complete bunk.
It’s bad enough that anyone believes this junk. That a sitting US senator not only believes it, but feels confident enough in these false reports to pass them on publicly is just awful. And deeply irresponsible.
United States Department of Health Education and Welfare/PhotoQuest // Getty Images
W.H. Powell // U.S. National Archives
During the Revolutionary War, American soldiers were susceptible to smallpox, but the majority of British troops were immune due to childhood exposure or vaccination. The Continental Army’s major military campaigns failed, as smallpox outbreaks swept through its camps. So the Continental Congress authorized Gen. Washington to require his troops to get vaccinated. Subsequent victories of American forces were attributed to the smallpox vaccine mandate.
E. Hamman // Wikimedia Commons
This law authorized local boards of health to require smallpox vaccinations for those over 21. Other states subsequently passed similar legislation. However, opposition to mandatory vaccination increased as states began to enforce these laws. Vaccine mandates were repealed in California, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the authority of states to enforce vaccine requirements in the landmark case Jacobson v. Massachusetts.
Harris & Ewing // Library of Congress
The agency was established by the Act to Encourage Vaccination, which was signed into law by then-President James Madison. Baltimore physician James Smith initially oversaw the agency as the national vaccine agent. The United States Postal Service was required to carry vaccine-related packages under 0.5 ounces for free to aid the agency’s efforts toward mass vaccination.
Universal History Archive/UIG // Getty Images
Today, all 50 states have vaccine mandates for children attending school. Religious exemptions are allowed in 44 states as well as Washington D.C., and 15 states allow for exemptions because of the parents’ philosophical beliefs. However, all states allow for medical exemptions.
Bettmann // Getty Images
The mandate was announced in the Urbana Union on July 10, 1867. A photo of the article was tweeted by Central Michigan University professor and historian Andrew Wehrman, who authored “The Contagion of Liberty: Smallpox in the American Revolution.” Professor Wehrman shared the tweet after Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, whose congressional district includes the city of Urbana, tweeted, “Vaccine mandates are un-American.”
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UVicLibraries // Wikimedia Commons
The law contained a conscience clause to allow exemptions to mandatory smallpox vaccination. This clause is the origin of the term “conscientious objector,” which now refers to those who object to compulsory military service. More than 200,000 vaccine exemptions had been issued by the end of 1898.
U.S. National Archives // Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives // Wikimedia Commons
The case upheld the right of individual states to mandate vaccination. In its decision, the Court maintained that a law requiring smallpox vaccination was a reasonable exercise of the state’s right to protect public health and safety and did not violate an individual’s civil and legal rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Office on War Information // Library of Congress
In the case of Zucht v. King, the United States Supreme Court decided that unvaccinated students could be constitutionally excluded from attending schools in the district of San Antonio, Texas. The decision upheld the right of local governments to require vaccinations as a condition for attending public schools, ruling that unvaccinated individuals could be denied access to education. The court argued that public health trumps an individual's right to education.
Bettmann // Getty Images
The court ruled that mandating childhood vaccines comes under the doctrine of parens patriae, in which the state exerts authority over child welfare. In their decision, the justices wrote that parental authority is not absolute and can be restricted if doing so is in the child’s best interest. They went on to say freedom of religion does not give parents the right to expose their community or their child to a communicable disease, or the child to the possibility of illness or death.
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The goal of the $58 million federal program, run by then-United States Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph A. Califano Jr., was to get 90% of children under the age of 15 fully immunized by October 1979. A nationwide advertising campaign featuring “Star Wars” characters and celebrity athletes urged parents to get their children vaccinated against preventable diseases, such as measles, mumps, rubella, polio, diphtheria, pertussis, and typhoid. Dr. Alan Hinman, former chief of the immunization program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the program successful. “We will meet the target for schoolage children and I think we will have clearly exceeded it when all information is in [by January 1, 1980],” said Hinman.
Smith Collection/Gado // Getty Images
In many states, the mandates applied to children at all grade levels and those in licensed preschool settings. The required vaccines were either specified in the law itself or were chosen by the state health officer or state board of health. By the 1998-1999 school year, 46 states, with the exception of Louisiana, Michigan, South Carolina, and West Virginia, had vaccine requirements for all grade levels from kindergarten through 12th grade.
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Like Jacobson v. Massachusetts, this case upheld the ability of the government to exclude students from public schools if they failed to comply with vaccine mandates. The court rejected the argument that a child’s right to an education would supersede the state’s need to protect other students from an infectious disease because even if unconfirmed, the risk of infection was too likely.
[Pictured: A middle school student shows proof of immunization against the measles in April of 1989.]
Justin Sullivan // Getty Images
In 2015, an outbreak of measles occurred among children in California who visited Disneyland and another theme park. Some parents were believed to be claiming a religious exemption to avoid getting their children vaccinated. Since 2015, five more states have eliminated vaccine exemptions in public schools: Connecticut, Mississippi, Maine, New York, and West Virginia.
Drew Angerer // Getty Images
The mandate includes vaccines for all federal workers, healthcare workers, and workers at companies with more than 100 employees. It could apply to more than 100 million Americans. In a speech announcing this sweeping initiative, President Joe Biden said vaccinated Americans are losing patience with those who refuse to get immunized, stating, “Your refusal has cost all of us.”
[Pictured: President Joe Biden speaks in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus Oct. 14, 2021 in Washington D.C. Biden spoke about the coronavirus pandemic and encouraged states and businesses to support vaccine mandates to avoid a surge in cases of COVID-19.]
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AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., talks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. He was talking about President Joe Biden's first year as president.