The widow of sports journalist Grant Wahl is hitting back at those spreading false conspiracies about his death, after swiftly ordering an autopsy to show he died as the result of an aneurysm, and not as because of the Covid vaccine.
Dr Celine Gounder, a leading infectious disease physician who become well known during the pandemic, has said she hoped by swiftly making public information about the death of the journalist it would help counter the hurtful and dangerous rumors being spread.
She said those conspiracies started recirculating agains after the recent collapse of NFL player Damar Hamlin, who suffered a cardiac arrest while playing for the Buffalo Bills.
The 24-year-old was released from hospital this week and an investigation is continuing into what caused his collapse. Yet, initially, conspiracy theories spread that what happened to him was related to the Covid vaccine. Experts have also rejected that as the cause.
The New York-based Ms Grounder said she is now having to fight for a second time to counter disinformation about the death of her 49-year-old husband, who collapsed and died in December while covering the Fifa World Cup in Qatar.
“I feel exhausted. I feel numb, which has me a bit scared, because I know this is going to hit me even harder. But nights are pretty tough, sort of when I get a chance to think about it. And it’s really hard,” she said, speaking on PBS Newshour.
Wahl, a celebrated journalist who also wrote about the social and political context to the sports he covered, and drew attention to Qatar’s abysmal record on LBGTQ+ rights, died on Dec 10 2022.
His agent, Tim Scanlan, said at the time the journalist “appeared to have suffered some sort of acute distress in the press room” while covering the quarter-final match between Argentina and the Netherlands, when the two teams began playing extra time.
Paramedics rushed to the scene but were unable to revive him.
Ms Grounder said she started seeing the false claims about his death almost immediately after his passing. She worked with the US State Department to repatriate his body as quickly as possible, and asked for an autopsy to be performed.
When the results of that medical investigation showed Wahl had died as a result of a burst blood vessel, she shared them with the world.
“An autopsy was performed by the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office. Grant died from the rupture of a slowly growing, undetected ascending aortic aneurysm with hemopericardium,” she wrote on Wahl’s own Substack.
“The chest pressure he experienced shortly before his death may have represented the initial symptoms. No amount of CPR or shocks would have saved him.”
She added: “His death was unrelated to Covid. His death was unrelated to vaccination status. There was nothing nefarious about his death.”
Ms Grounder, who advised the Biden transition team about the status of the pandemic when the new administration took office, said she was determined to keep educating people about vaccine safety. To date, more than 1.1m people have died in the US as result of the coronavirus.
She said after the collapse of Hamlin she had to speak out again.
“The conspiracy theory that had emerged around that is this idea that Covid vaccines are leading to death,” she said.
“And that’s simply not true. We have plenty of data now from vaccination over the last several years, the last few years, that Covid vaccines do not result in an increased risk of non-Covid-related deaths and, of course, are preventing Covid related deaths.”
She was asked how best to counter the false information. “Well, I think people like me who are experts need to be putting out good information,” she said.
Ms Grounder also wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which she said she had been the target of a number of hurtful comments on social media, and received an email that said: “Now you understand that you killed your poor husband. Karma is a bitch.”
“I’ve received these kinds of messages before, including rape and death threats, over the course of the pandemic, but receiving them about Grant was vile, especially as waves of anguish threatened to consume me,” she wrote.
“But when these disinformation opportunists recently used the same playbook to blame Damar Hamlin’s in-game cardiac arrest on Covid vaccines, the dam broke. I knew I had to write this essay.”
In her interview, she was asked what she wanted people to know about her husband, who worked for many outlets over the years including CBS and Sports Illustrated and was the author of a book, The Beckham Experiment.
“Grant was kind. He was generous. He was curious,” she said.
“Anybody, from an elementary school student to a young soccer or sports journalist, who reached out to him for advice, he was always happy to give them time.”