Hamlin’s collapse spurs new wave of vaccine misinformation

Hamlin’s collapse spurs new wave of vaccine misinformation

WASHINGTON (AP) — Unsubstantiated claims about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines spread in the hours and days after Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed during Monday’s game, revealing how widespread vaccine misinformation remains three years after the start of the pandemic.

Even before Hamlin left 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 is too early to know what caused Hamlin’s heart to stop, they have offered a rare type of trauma called commotio cordis as a possible culprit. Doctors interviewed by The Associated Press say there is no indication that Hamlin’s vaccine status played a role and said 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, reinforced the theories in a Fox News segment hosted by Tucker Carlson on Tuesday, speculating that “vaccine-induced myocarditis” may have caused Hamlin’s episode. While the Bills have not said whether Hamlin was 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 beginning of the vax campaign.”

But Carlson was citing a paper in which the authors’ testimony was a dubious blog listing news reports of people around the world, of all ages, dying or experiencing medical emergencies. The blog does not prove any link between the incidents and the vaccines of COVID-19; it also includes in its count reported deaths from cancer and emergencies of unknown causes.

“It’s not real research, but he cites it as if 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 hoax videos purporting to show athletes collapsing on the field due to COVID-19 vaccines. However, some of the reported cases have been proven to be from other causes.

Although anti-vaccine lobbyists have insisted that sudden cardiac arrests during sports games are unprecedented, cardiologists say they have observed these traumatic events throughout their careers and long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There have always been cases of athletes having sudden cardiac death or cardiac arrest,” said Dr. Lawrence Phillips, sports health expert and cardiologist at NYU Langone Health. “I haven’t seen a change in their prevalence over the last two years versus earlier in my career.”

In fact, Phillips said, these rare medical emergencies are the main reason doctors and activists have spent years campaigning for defibrillators to be on hand at sporting events.

That push, and the implementation of emergency action plans, has improved outcomes after cardiac events on the field of play, although 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 investigated but has not seen any signal that COVID-19 or vaccines are causing an increase in incidence of cardiac events among athletes.

His research shows that among professional athletes who had COVID-19, the rate of inflammatory heart disease was about 0.6% — showing no increased risk compared to other viruses.

Internet posts mentioning Hamlin and vaccines spiked into the thousands within an hour of Hamlin’s collapse, according to an analysis conducted for the AP by Zignal Labs, a media intelligence company based in San Francisco.

It’s not surprising that false claims about COVID-19 vaccines increased after Hamlin’s cardiac arrest, given how much vaccine misinformation has spread since the pandemic began, said Jeanine Guidry, a Commonwealth University professor. Virginia researching health misinformation and vaccine hesitancy.

High-profile public events like the Hamlin collapse often create new waves of misinformation as people search for explanations. For people worried about vaccine safety, Hamlin’s sudden collapse served to affirm and vindicate their beliefs, Guidry said.

“It happened to a person in the prime of their life, on primetime television, and people watching didn’t immediately know why,” she said. “We like to have clear answers that make us feel more confident. Especially after the last three years, I think it comes from fear and uncertainty.”

Also unsubstantiated claims of vaccine damage grew last month after 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.


Associated Press writer Angelo Fichera in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

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