Fake CNN headline on Damar Hamlin spreads anti-vaccine misinformation

Social media users are sharing an image that appears to show a CNN report connecting American football player Damar Hamlin's on-field collapse to a Covid-19 booster shot. But the headline has been altered; the US news outlet told AFP it published no such story, and no doctor affiliated with Hamlin has publicly blamed vaccination for his cardiac arrest.

"Doctor of Damar Hamlin confirms Cardiac Arrest was due to the 4th Booster Vaccine," says a supposed January 11, 2023 headline from CNN.

The purported screenshot has circulated on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other platforms, fueling baseless claims about the safety of Covid-19 vaccination.

Screenshot from Twitter taken January 19, 2023

Hamlin, a 24-year-old safety for the Buffalo Bills, suffered a cardiac arrest during a January 2 matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals, prompting the National Football League (NFL) to suspend and ultimately cancel the game.

Minutes into the match, Hamlin tackled wide receiver Tee Higgins, taking Higgins' helmet and shoulder to his chest. Hamlin stood up after the hit but quickly collapsed.

Medical personnel resuscitated Hamlin on the field and transferred him to a hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was stabilized and regained consciousness over a period of days. The second-year player was later moved to a hospital in Buffalo, New York, and on January 11 he was discharged.

Contrary to the posts shared online, no physicians associated with Hamlin have publicly linked his cardiac arrest to Covid-19 vaccines -- and the CNN headline is doctored.

"It is a fabricated image and not something CNN reported," said Emily Kuhn, the broadcaster's vice president of communications, in a January 19 email.

The news organization's actual report features the same bylines, photo, date and timestamp as the manipulated version. The headline says: "Damar Hamlin discharged after spending more than a week hospitalized due to a cardiac arrest."

Aya Elamroussi, one of the journalists who wrote the story, responded to a tweet sharing the altered headline, saying it is "disinformation that is clearly fabricated."

Vaccine link unproven

None of the physicians who treated Hamlin -- including his care team in Cincinnati, which held a pair of press conferences to discuss his recovery -- have said publicly that his cardiac arrest was due to Covid-19 vaccination.

"We have completed a series of tests and evaluations, and in consultation with the team physicians, we are confident that Damar can be safely discharged to continue his rehabilitation at home and with the Bills," said Jamie Nadler, the physician who led Hamlin's care team in Buffalo, in a team statement published January 11.

The cause of Hamlin's cardiac arrest had not been made public as of 1830 GMT on January 20. However, cardiologists have hypothesized that it may have been a rare case of commotio cordis, in which a sudden blunt impact to the chest can cause cardiac arrest.

Hamlin's agent, Ira Turner, told USA Today that claims of a connection to Covid-19 shots are "ridiculous."

AFP repeatedly contacted Turner, the Buffalo Bills and other Hamlin associates for comment, but responses were not forthcoming.

Dubious doctor post

The fake CNN headline is not the only misinformation to falsely claim a doctor confirmed Hamlin's collapse was tied to vaccines.

In early January, social media users and the Gateway Pundit, a website that has previously spread Covid-19 misinformation, shared a screenshot of a tweet from a supposed doctor who claimed to have insight on Hamlin's vaccination status.

"I recently administered Damar Hamlin's Covid booster on 12/26, and as a medical professional, I can assure the public he passed all screenings with flying colors," the account, named "Dr. Benjamin Eidelman," said in a January 2 tweet. "I am in contact with the UCMC staff and will provide any assistance to them."

Screenshot from Twitter taken January 19, 2023

But the post appears to be from a since-deleted hoax account.

Siwei Lyu, director of the Media Forensic Lab at the University of Buffalo, analyzed the profile photo and told AFP it appears to be synthesized using artificial intelligence and machine learning.

"Visual inspection suggests abnormalities in the hair, ear, sunglass frame and different reflected images from the left and right sunglass panels," Lyu said in a January 4 email.

Twitter profile photo irregularities highlighted by Siwei Lyu, director of the Media Forensic Lab at the University of Buffalo, on January 5, 2023

An archived capture of the account shows it was created in December 2022. Searches for a doctor named Benjamin Eidelman return results for a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, but his headshot does not match the profile picture.

"The physician referenced did not create the account, nor did he post on social media," said Kevin Punsky, communications manager for the Mayo Clinic in Florida, in a January 4 email.

The Buffalo Bills medical team does not employ anyone named Benjamin Eidelman, according to the organization's staff directory.

Another indication that the account was fake: Three health law experts told AFP the disclosure of Hamlin's vaccination records would likely have violated privacy protections enshrined in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).

AFP has previously debunked other claims connecting athlete injuries to Covid-19 vaccines here, here and here.