NORFOLK, Va. – A News 3 investigation reveals a government database meant to track potential side effects from COVID-19 vaccines is being misused and misinterpreted by some on social media to fuel fear and doubt about the shot.
In a July 11 post, now deleted by Twitter because it’s misleading, Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene wrote, “5,946 deaths are reported on the CDC website” and “Just say NO!” regarding the COVID-19 vaccine.
Popular Tik Tok user @handyharley publicly shared a downloadable video garnering more than seven million views with a similar claim as Greene saying, “The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System shows that 5,946 people have died because of the vaccine.”
Greene’s tweet and @handyharley’s Tik Tok video are misrepresentations of data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS.
The database, co-managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, is a “national early warning system to detect possible safety problems in U.S.-listed vaccines."
As of August 5, the VAERS shows 6,340 peopled died after received the vaccine, however, the CDC stresses “reporting of adverse events to VAERS following vaccination, including deaths, do not necessarily mean that a vaccine caused a health problem."
The CDC further explains on its website that the “FDA requires healthcare providers to report any death after COVID-19 vaccination to VAERS, even if it’s unclear whether the vaccine was the cause.”
News 3 reached out to the CDC via e-mail to get the confirmed number of deaths linked to the COVID-19 vaccines. Marthan Sharan with the CDC said “there have been three confirmed deaths in association with COVID-19 vaccines. All three were cases of TTS following the J&J/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine.”
TTS, or thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome, is a rare blood clot that can be deadly. The CDC paused the J&J/Janssen vaccine in April to study a link between the vaccine and deadly blood clots.
“It is very easy to look at the VAERS data and get confused or misunderstand it,” said UVA infectious disease expert Dr. William Petri. “If you vaccinate 126 million people, some of them are going to die but that’s not because of the vaccine. It’s because we have a certain rate of deaths in the U.S. every year.”
According to the CDC, roughly 2.8 million people die in the United States every year for a number of reasons, meaning the thousands of people who happened to die after taking the vaccine could have passed away from a number of pre-existing conditions. Additionally, other than the three deaths definitively linked to the J&J/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine, the CDC said “a review of available clinical information, including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records, has not established a causal link to COVID-19 vaccines.”
While the VAERS database is intended for doctors and people to report any health events after taking a vaccine, anyone can report anything to the database, allowing the public to see raw, unvetted data about possible vaccine side effects.
The News 3 I-Team uncovered a report to VAERS from a 39-year-old Indiana man claiming to have grown a third arm after taking the Pfizer vaccine.
The report read, “a third arm has grown out of my forehead and often slaps me when I’m trying to sleep.”
The report continued, “If there is a pattern of third arms growing on foreheads, [the CDC] will investigate a potential causal relationship. Stop spreading conspiracy theories that rely on raw VAERS data."
The report was shared on social media sites like Twitter and Reddit. The CDC confirmed the report did exist in the VAERS database, but they’ve since removed it – calling it a hoax.
“Nothing is completely risk free, but these vaccines are about as risk free as possible,” said Dr. Petri. “There are some side effects from these vaccines that are extraordinarily rare, but are clearly there.”
Dr. Petri said rare side effects, like mild heart inflammation and even rarer blood clots, have occurred in about 1 in every 100,000 people who've taken the vaccine. However, 1 in 600 people who contracted COVID-19 in the United States have died.
“My father would have been right there in line to get vaccinated to make things better,” said Lillie Head, the daughter of Freddie Lee Tyson. Tyson is one of the hundreds of Black men deceived by the U.S. government’s now-infamous syphilis study.
Head said misinformation about exactly what happened to the men is casting misguided distrust of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“There's no comparison,” said Head. “This more contrast than it is comparison.”
The men in the Syphilis Study at Tuskegee were not injected with syphilis, as it is widely and incorrectly shared. The men did not know they had syphilis, but a U.S. government-led team of doctors did. The doctors only told the men they had “bad blood” that needed to be studied. The study began in 1932 in Macon, Alabama, but by 1943, penicillin became a proven treatment for syphilis. Doctors withheld treatment from the men, a decision that allowed some to die.
Head said her father, who died from injuries in a car accident, would have supported getting the COVID-19 vaccine because he was denied treatment for syphilis. She said his history made her more determined to get the shot earlier this year.
“It’s important that we protect ourselves, and we protect each other,” Head said.
According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 67% of the unvaccinated believe at least one big myth about the vaccine. Some myths include the vaccine itself causes COVID-19, the vaccine causes infertility, or that the vaccine changes your DNA.
“My worry is that all of this is misinformation that's floating around, it's having a real cost that can be measured and lives lost,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said.
As of the date this report was published, more than 611,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, with more than 35 million infected since 2020. Nearly all of the hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are among the unvaccinated. Infectious disease experts say the vaccines are more than 90% effective at preventing death and hospitalization from the virus.
“I saw [the vaccine] as a miracle,” said Head. “We have little miracles and big miracles in our lives every day, whether we realize them and accept them – that's another story.”
The CDC plans to post an update on the number of TTS deaths associated with COVID-19 vaccines later this month.
If you have concerns about getting the COVID-19 vaccine, talk to your doctor.