January 9, 2023

It’s become a familiar pattern.

A notable figure experiences a tragic event — an injury or even death — and within minutes, online anti-vaccination activists and conservative personalities attribute it to COVID-19 vaccines.

That’s what happened after Damar Hamlin, a 24-year-old football player for the Buffalo Bills, collapsed from cardiac arrest during a Jan. 2 game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati. The scene was scary. Hamlin received several minutes of CPR and required resuscitation before being taken away in an ambulance.

No official cause has been identified for Hamlin’s event, and his vaccination status is not publicly known. But some medical experts have said it looks like commotio cordis, where a blow to the chest can disrupt the heart’s rhythm and cause death.

We now know that Hamlin is making “remarkable improvement” as he recovers in the hospital, according to the Bills organization. But immediately after he collapsed, anti-vaccine activists used the incident to baselessly blame COVID-19 vaccines.

Conservative commentator Liz Wheeler shared data she suggested showed Hamlin’s incident was part of a larger trend.

“1 in 5,000 young men have heart issues from COVID vax. Yearly commotio cordis cases? ~15. (RARELY over age 20),” Wheeler posted Jan. 3. “1,598 athlete cardiac arrests since Jan 2021. 69% fatal. (Average athlete cardiacs before vax was 29/yr),” Wheeler tweeted Jan. 3. “‘Science’ ignores this. That’s why people ask questions.”

She also shared the post on Instagram, where it was flagged as part of Meta’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.

The first two data points in Wheeler’s tweet have some basis — but they tell only part of the story. The 5,000 figure comes from a September 2021 New York Times story. But the article cited unconfirmed data used by vaccine regulators to create risk estimates and worst-case scenarios. That group ultimately concluded that vaccination’s benefits still outweigh its risks.

And Wheeler is accurate to suggest that commotio cordis is rare: The National Institutes of Health reports that there are fewer than 30 cases each year. But that doesn’t prove that vaccines are to blame for Hamlin’s collapse.

We reached out to Wheeler for comment but didn’t hear back. Meanwhile, we saw other posts sharing similar data about athletes and an increase in cardiac arrests so we wanted to learn more about its source.

Turns out these figures are collected by an anomymous group based on unverified, broad reports of injuries and deaths that include incidents like suicides and car accidents. Many of these cases are also devoid of critical information, such as the cause of death or whether the person was vaccinated. We’ve seen claims like this before and have found no credible evidence that vaccines are driving a sudden rise in cardiac arrests among athletes.

Medical experts in sports cardiology reaffirmed that they haven’t seen a sharp rise in athlete cardiac arrest episodes since the COVID-19 vaccines came out.

Bad data

Wheeler’s numbers come from a letter to the editor that was published in the Journal of Scandinavian Immunology. Peter McCullough, a cardiologist who has made multiple misleading statements about the COVID-19 vaccines, wrote the letter in which he cites a website called GoodSciencing.com for the figures.

Good Sciencing is a blog compiled by anonymous authors who, according to the about page, “are a small team of investigators, news editors, journalists, and truth seekers,” though they add that it “doesn’t really matter who we are.”

The website offers a dubious collection of news reports from around the world, including some about people who have died from cancer and medical episodes involving former athletes in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

“These are not rigorously identified ‘cases,’” said Dr. Jonathan Kim, an associate professor of medicine and chief of sports cardiology at Emory University in Atlanta. “Plus, these are just media reports and appear cherry-picked as the age range is all over the place. Who knows what the cause was for any of these cases.”

Kim said he was not aware of a rise in cardiac arrests among athletes in 2021 or 2022, or of any connection between episodes and the vaccines.

Dr. Matthew Martinez, a sports cardiologist who works with the National Football League, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Soccer, told us the list has “absolutely no academic rigor.”

“It’s just a website that collects events that have happened across the globe,” said Martinez, who also serves as director of sports cardiology at Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey. “They mention someone who was suffering from cancer for years and eventually died. People have died from cancer; that has happened before COVID-19. Just because someone dies in 2021 or 2022 doesn’t mean that it’s COVID-related.”

PolitiFact reached out to the website’s authors. We asked whether they considered former baseball player Hank Aaron — who is included in the list and died of natural causes in early 2021 at age 86 — as one of the 1,600 athletes who they say experienced cardiac arrest. We haven’t heard back.

“What bothers me is that they’re spinning it and leaving out the details. When I heard ‘1,600 athletes’ I almost passed out,” Martinez added. “We have not seen an increase in the signal for increased deaths in the last couple of years. It’s been virtually unchanged from previous years.”

The council for the American College of Cardiology, which includes Kim and Martinez, issued a statement in response to the flurry of claims about Hamlin’s injury, saying that the cause of his cardiac arrest remains unknown and under investigation by medical professionals.

“Reckless speculation on social media is a source of disinformation and could lead to other unintended negative consequences,” the statement reads. “We would encourage all to avoid this practice and allow the medical evaluation to proceed by those in charge.”

Experts in sports medicine stress that, instead of the knee-jerk blaming of vaccines for every cardiac event, people should focus on the cardiac on-field emergency care that helped save Hamlin’s and other athletes’ lives. The protocols in place for the NFL and other professional sports organizations — which include rigorous planning, training and access to defibrillators — are crucial, cardiologists say, and need to be extended to local sports programs in high schools and colleges.

Our ruling

Liz Wheeler claimed there have been “1,598 athlete cardiac arrests since January 2021, with 69% being fatal.”

This is bogus.

Wheeler’s numbers come from an unvetted, unconfirmed list of global incidents that include nonathletes of all ages and non-cardiac injuries and deaths.

Multiple medical professionals in sports cardiology rejected the figures and reaffirmed that they have seen no increase in cardiac arrests among athletes in 2021 or 2022, and have found no correlation with cardiac events and the COVID-19 vaccines.

We rate this False.

This fact check was originally published by PolitiFact, which is part of the Poynter Institute. It is republished here with permission. See the sources for this fact check here and more of their fact checks here.

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Samantha Putterman is a fact-checker for PolitiFact based in New York. Previously, she reported for the Bradenton Herald and the Tampa Bay Times. She is…
Samantha Putterman

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  • What are the sources then… can you site them? The false ones?