There's a disturbing pattern that has emerged over the past few years: Whenever a public figure dies or has a major health problem, some people blame it on the COVID-19 vaccine. Case in point: Google searches for "Damar Hamlin COVID vaccine" skyrocketed after the Buffalo Bills player collapsed on the football field last week. So did searches for Bob Saget and the vaccine, and Betty White and the COVID-19 vaccine after their respective deaths.
Data even show that there is a solid group of people who mistakenly believe that the COVID-19 vaccine — which doctors and major health organizations have repeatedly stressed is safe — is responsible for a sizable number of deaths. In fact, one recent survey found that 1 in 4 Americans believe that someone they know died from the COVID-19 vaccine.
Unfortunately, experts don't think this phenomenon is likely to go away. "The vaccine has become a scapegoat for a range of things," Thea Gallagher, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at New York University Langone Health and co-host of the Mind in View podcast, tells Yahoo Life. But what's behind this fear, and why does it keep coming up? Here's the deal.
Why do some people immediately blame COVID vaccines after a serious health problem or death?
There are a lot of layers to it, Gallagher says. "When something tragic happens, we want to understand and make meaning of it," she says. "It's very hard for us to tolerate uncertainty and knowing that this could potentially happen to us." In these situations, she says, "People try to look for someone or something to blame." The COVID-19 vaccine has become a lightning rod for these situations because it's newer, she explains.
People have also had "strong opinions on vaccines" in general for years, Hillary Ammon, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety & Women's Emotional Wellness, tells Yahoo Life. "While most vaccines have been tested in clinical trials and are considered safe for the general public, there’s an uncertainty about taking vaccines, and always some risks, in addition to the benefits of vaccines," she says.
"Generally, uncertainty can be uncomfortable." Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life that "there is always a group of people out there that is anti-vaccine and anti-science — they will always want to blame medical issues on the vaccine."
The newness of the COVID vaccine makes it easy to blame, Ammon says, and this is reinforced when some public figures make false claims that the vaccine is harmful.
Finally, people like to be right. "Some people have a belief that these vaccines can lead to other health issues, whether that be true or a theory," Ammon says. "Therefore, before they might have actual evidence, they may try and tie any illness or death that hits the headlines to the COVID vaccines. It fits their narrative and makes their beliefs true: 'I had this worry, and look, I was right!'" This, she says, is a phenomenon known as "confirmation bias," when people interpret information in order to conform with their beliefs, while ignoring facts that do not support their beliefs.
Why are some people more afraid of the vaccine than they are of COVID?
Data have repeatedly shown that COVID-19 is more dangerous and deadly than any potential side effects of taking the COVID-19 vaccines. In fact, research has found that the risk of developing myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that has been linked with the COVID-19 vaccine in rare cases, is significantly higher in the aftermath of a COVID-19 infection than after getting the vaccine. (One analysis published in the journal Circulation showed that people infected with COVID-19 who hadn't been vaccinated were 11 times more at risk for developing myocarditis within 28 days of testing positive for the virus — and the risk was cut in half if a person was infected after receiving at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.)
However, Ammon points out that the vaccine development process "may have felt rushed for some people," noting that the vaccine rollout was "a bit bumpy." She adds, "That made people not only question the reliability of government officials and government agencies, but also question if they could truly trust science."
Making matters worse is that people have been bombarded with COVID vaccine misinformation — and that can influence thinking, Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. "People have an irrational bias against these vaccines and have swallowed so much misinformation that they pounce on events like this to attack the vaccine," he says. Russo agrees. "If you see something enough, you start to believe it after a while," he says.
What are the more common risks with COVID vaccines?
No vaccine is risk-free, and there are some risks and side effects associated with getting the COVID vaccine. But, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, severe reactions to the vaccines are rare.
While myocarditis has gotten the most attention, it actually occurs extremely rarely. That same Circulation study found that people under 40 who received the Pfizer vaccine had up to three extra cases of myocarditis per 1 million women vaccinated (compared to 51 extra cases in those who got the virus before vaccination). Men under 40 who received the Pfizer vaccine had an estimated four extra cases of myocarditis associated with the first dose of the vaccine (compared to 16 additional myocarditis cases per million for unvaccinated men in the same age group).
"The benefit greatly favors the vaccine," Russo says. As a whole, he says you're more likely to experience the following potential, temporary side effects from the vaccine, if you have any at all:
Pain, redness and swelling in the arm where you got the shot
Keep this in mind, says Russo: Symptoms are a reaction to the vaccine as your body generates an immune response.
Why is misinformation about COVID vaccines and sudden death harmful?
Misinformation linking COVID vaccines and sudden death is rampant online, and experts say it's harmful. "This type of misinformation turns people away from an incalculably valuable tool in the fight against COVID," Adalja says.
Russo explains that "COVID is a lethal disease and our best protection against COVID is vaccination," adding: "It protects you and indirectly protects others that may be more vulnerable." Misinformation can ultimately lower the number of people who get the vaccine and thereby increase deaths, Russo says.
If you have questions about COVID vaccines, Russo recommends talking to your primary care physician, who should be able to answer them.
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