Unfounded claims about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines spread in the hours and days after Buffalo Bill’s safety Damar Hamlin collapsed during Monday’s game, showing how pervasive misinformation about vaccines persists three years after the pandemic began.
Even before Hamlin was carried off the field in Cincinnati, posts garnering thousands of shares and millions of views began circulating online claiming without evidence that complications from COVID-19 vaccines caused his health emergency.
While heart specialists say it’s too early to know what caused Hamlin’s heart to stop, they’ve cited a rare type of trauma, commotio cordis, as one of the possible culprits. Doctors interviewed by The Associated Press say there is no evidence Hamlin’s vaccine status played a role, saying there is no evidence to support claims that a number of young athletes have died as a result of COVID vaccinations.
Peter McCullough, a Dallas cardiologist and outspoken vaccine critic, bolstered the theories on a Fox News segment hosted Tuesday by Tucker Carlson, speculating that “vaccine-induced myocarditis” might have triggered Hamlin’s episode. While the Bills have not said whether Hamlin has been vaccinated, about 95% of NFL players have received a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the league.
In his Tuesday segment, Carlson claimed that McCullough and another researcher found that “more than 1,500 total cardiac arrests” have occurred among European athletes “since the vax campaign began.”
But Carlson cited a letter in which the authors’ evidence was a dubious blog featuring news stories from people around the world, of all ages, dying or medical emergencies. The blog proves no connection between the incidents and COVID-19 vaccines; it also includes reported deaths from cancer and emergencies of unknown causes.
“It’s not a real study, but he’s quoting it like it’s real research,” said Dr. Matthew Martinez, director of sports cardiology at Atlantic Health System at Morristown Medical Center. “Anyone can write a letter to the editor and then cite an article that lacks academic rigor.”
Many social media users have also shared misleading videos claiming to show athletes collapsing on the field due to COVID-19 vaccines. However, some of the cases shown have been proven to have other causes.
While anti-vaccination influencers have insisted that sudden cardiac arrests during sports competitions are unprecedented, cardiologists say they have observed these traumatic events throughout their careers and well before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There have always been cases of athletes experiencing sudden cardiac death or cardiac arrest,” says Dr. Lawrence Phillips, a sports health expert and cardiologist at NYU Langone Health. “I haven’t seen a change in its prevalence in recent years from earlier in my career.”
In fact, Phillips said, these rare medical emergencies are the main reason doctors and activists have campaigned for years to have defibrillators on standby at sporting events.
That push and the implementation of emergency action plans have improved outcomes after cardiac events on the playing field, even as the number of such events has remained “remarkably stable,” Martinez said.
Martinez, who has worked for the National Football League, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Soccer, said he has done research but has not seen any sign that COVID-19 or vaccines are causing an increased incidence of heart disease in athletes .
His research shows that among professional athletes who have had COVID-19, the rate of inflammatory heart disease was about 0.6% – indicating no increased risk compared to other viruses.
Online posts mentioning Hamlin and vaccines numbered in the thousands within an hour of Hamlin’s collapse, according to an analysis conducted for the AP by Zignal Labs, a San Francisco-based media intelligence firm.
It’s not surprising that misleading claims about COVID-19 vaccines soared after Hamlin’s cardiac arrest, given the amount of misinformation about vaccines that has spread since the start of the pandemic, said Jeanine Guidry, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. investigating health misinformation and vaccine hesitancy.
High-profile public events like Hamlin’s collapse often create new waves of misinformation as people reach for explanations. For people concerned about vaccine safety, Hamlin’s sudden collapse served to confirm and justify their beliefs, Guidry said.
“This happened to a person in their prime, on prime-time television, and the people watching didn’t immediately know why,” she said. “We like to have clear answers that make us feel safer. Especially after the last three years, I think this stems from fear and uncertainty.”
Similarly, unfounded claims of vaccine-related injuries increased last month following the death of sports journalist Grant Wahl, who died of a ruptured blood vessel in his heart while covering the World Cup in Qatar. His death was not related to vaccines.