Fake News Is a Real Public Health Threat

Tucker Carlson’s toxic disinformation about Covid vaccines may well cost someone their life

Photo: aj_aaaab/Unsplash

Let me cut to the chase: Fox News’ Tucker Carlson is spreading dangerous disinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines. Given his long history of questionable and controversial statements, this isn’t surprising. But this time, his falsehoods may cost someone their life.

On a recent episode of his massively popular prime time show, Carlson reported that nearly 4,000 Americans have died after getting vaccinated against Covid-19. On that, he’s right — those statistics are available on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s own website.

The problem is that Carlson didn’t stop at the facts. After insisting he was “only asking questions,” he crossed over into speculation. By claiming “it’s clear that what is happening now, for whatever reason, is not even close to normal,” he was trying to link these deaths directly to the Covid vaccines themselves.

Yet again, Carlson is wrong. His assertion of a direct cause-and-effect association between these deaths and the Covid-19 vaccines directly contradicts the CDC’s finding — in bold, and in the same paragraph, Carlson found the number of deaths he reported on the show — that no such causal link exists.

To understand why Carlson’s disinformation campaign is so dangerous, it’s helpful to understand how deaths after vaccination are reported and investigated, the actual role vaccines have had on Covid deaths in the U.S., and how disinformation may ultimately prolong the pandemic here.

How deaths after vaccination are reported

So far, 4,434 deaths have been reported to the vaccine adverse reporting system (VAERS), the early warning system co-managed by the CDC and FDA and established to “detect possible safety problems” in vaccines.

Anyone can submit to VAERS, including physicians, parents, and patients themselves. But health care providers are required to report adverse events after vaccination, including any death regardless of the cause.

CDC and FDA physicians perform an extensive review of any death reported to the system to determine whether the death “was a result of the vaccine or was unrelated.”

In its ongoing review — the most scrutinized of any vaccine in history — the CDC determined: “A review of available clinical information, including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records has not established a causal link to Covid-19 vaccines.”

Carlson’s assertion that the CDC is overlooking thousands of deaths would be more believable if we hadn’t already seen how well VAERS flagged rare adverse events, including the few deaths that are plausibly related to the vaccines.

In April 2021, the CDC and FDA examined VAERS reports of six patients who developed rare blood clots after receiving the Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) Covid-19 vaccine. Exercising an abundance of caution, federal health authorities took immediate action and temporarily paused the use of the J&J vaccine nationwide while they investigated any possible link between this vaccine and blood clots (no similar association was seen with the other two vaccines currently in use).

At that point, over 6.8 million people had received the J&J vaccine. If the system can rapidly discover a one-in-a-million side effect, can you in good faith argue that it would somehow overlook thousands of people dying? Especially after the CDC outlined its extensive review process and was forthcoming about the three deaths with a plausible link to the J&J vaccine? Of course not. But somehow, Carlson does.

What really happened with the vaccines

Carlson claims the number of deaths in people who’ve received a Covid vaccine is “not even close to normal.” Again, he’s wrong.

Did some people die after getting vaccinated? Yes. Did some people die the day before they were going to be vaccinated? Yes. To assert that the Covid vaccines caused an increase in deaths, you’d have to show that the death rate in those vaccinated was higher than the baseline death rate. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t; and in fact, it’s the opposite.

Let’s make something abundantly clear: The Covid vaccine rollout in the U.S. has had a remarkable impact on the trajectory of the pandemic here. Over 153 million Americans have received at least one dose, and 35% are now fully vaccinated. As a result, we are now witnessing the number of new Covid cases plummet in the U.S. while the pandemic continues to reach record highs around the world.

Even though every aspect of this pandemic has been politicized, the vaccine rollout has made one thing unarguably obvious: Covid vaccines are both overwhelmingly safe and have saved many lives in the U.S.

When Carlson tries to directly link Covid vaccines to an increased risk of death, he overlooks the simple fact that people die. And they die from a whole host of causes unrelated to Covid, regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated or not. This is especially true in the high-risk groups who were prioritized in the earliest phase of the vaccine rollout.

Covid-19 took a disproportionately high toll on older adults and residents of nursing homes. Before the widespread availability of vaccines, over 40% of all Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. occurred in long-term care facilities.

Deaths dropped precipitously once nursing home residents were vaccinated. In fact, since the vaccine rollout in December 2020, the number of Covid-19 deaths in long-term care facilities has declined by 89%. Vaccines have saved a lot of lives.

Did some people die after getting vaccinated? Of course. Because of course, people die for a lot of reasons completely unrelated to the vaccine. Yes, the Covid vaccines provide remarkable protection against Covid, but they do nothing to lower your risk of dying from a heart attack, stroke, or falling off a cliff.

Did the vaccines cause those heart attacks, strokes, or tumbles down the mountain? No. But Carlson points to these deaths as evidence to suggest that the vaccines were indeed the cause.

Over the past year, many of Carlson’s Fox News colleagues pushed the narrative that the U.S. death toll from Covid was inflated by those who died with Covid, not from Covid. Given that, it’s unbelievable that Carlson doesn’t understand the difference when it comes to vaccines. But my guess is he does.

Why it matters

I can only speculate why Carlson is spreading falsehoods about the Covid vaccines. But I am certain of the impact of his misinformation. The demographic that tunes in to his show are largely white Republican men.

It has already been incredibly difficult to convince many in this group to sign up for a shot. I will admit that Tucker Carlson isn’t completely to blame for their reluctance to get vaccinated against Covid. Concerns about the speed of vaccine development and rumors the shots contained microchips made many distrust the vaccines before they were even available.

But his deliberate disinformation — presumably for the purpose of elevating the political over what best serves public health — will only make it harder to get more Americans vaccinated.

Even if a United States district judge recently declared that no “reasonable viewer” would take Tucker Carlson seriously, 3 million people watch his show every night while he accentuates the dangers of the Covid vaccines and misrepresents the remarkable impact they’ve had.

And by insisting he’s “just asking questions,” he’s implying to his viewers that the answers don’t already exist. But they do — and the answers are so clear that I am certain Carlson himself knows the truth. In making the decision to get vaccinated, everyone deserves access to honest and reliable information about the risks associated with getting — or declining — the shot.

In pushing disingenuous disinformation about the Covid vaccines, Carlson is doing his viewers a huge disservice. Hopefully, none of them pay the ultimate price.

NYC ER doctor | Ebola Survivor | Director of Global Health in Emergency Medicine at Columbia University | Public Health Professor | Doctors Without Borders BoD

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