In the days since the United States began rolling out coronavirus vaccines, many Americans have been searching for information on when, where, and how they and their loved ones will be able to get a jab. The question of who gets to be first in line, and why, is inescapable.
But a small, vocal minority has begun frantically trying to find something grimmer and nonexistent: evidence that these vaccines against COVID-19 have started killing people.
“Comprehensive list of COVID vaccine-related deaths?” one Reddit user posted in a conspiracy theory-focused forum recently. “Anyone putting one together yet?”
“Pick a date and time when the first recorded death of someone who had the vaccine [sic],” another user posted. “For bonus, which news site will announce it?”
Anti-vaxxer rhetoric has, for many months now, primed some Americans to falsely believe that COVID-19 vaccines will kill people, that the powers that be will suppress it, and that they must hunt down and share evidence of this alleged outrage. Experts on anti-vaxxer rhetoric and conspiracy theories worry that this wild hunt for deaths and disaster could lead reasonable but worried people down conspiratorial rabbit holes, ultimately hindering efforts to curb this nightmare pandemic.
The current quest for deaths is so off the rails that even some old-guard vaccine skeptics are distancing themselves from the frenzy.
“I have heard reports that there have been instances of anaphylaxis with two [resultant] deaths thus far, in England,” one Reddit user, who declined to give their actual name, told The Daily Beast, explaining why they posted a call for updates on alleged vaccine deaths.
The user, who has posted debunked talking points about how vaccines that require cold storage contain antifreeze, said that they have seen other people on social media saying that the few cases of anaphylaxis linked to COVID-19 vaccine doses have been treated quickly and effectively, resulting in zero deaths.
That happens to be true. But “those are the rumors I’m trying to avoid” by posting a call for more death stories, the phantom death hunter added.
Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines, the only two currently authorized for emergency use in the United States, can have some side effects, like soreness at the site of the jab, and mild fatigue and fever symptoms that can last for a day or two. They have also yielded, as Peter Hotez, a vaccinologist at the Baylor College of Medicine told The Daily Beast, “a higher-than-expected number of allergic reactions.” The CDC recently reported that, as of Dec. 18, six people had experienced anaphylactic episodes soon after receiving a dose, an allergic reaction that can be fatal if untreated.
However, health officials are well aware of this minor risk, and prepared to address it. No official entity—or anyone removed from the world of radical anti-vaxxer disinformation—has recorded a single case of a COVID-19 vaccine-caused, or even -linked, death to date.
“The vaccines overall seem to have a good safety profile,” Hotez said.
Of course, it was virtually inevitable that anti-vaxxers, who have a long track record of spuriously connecting vaccines to deaths, would go on the hunt for COVID-19 vaccine fatalities. Some appear to have started searching for, and promoting, tall tales as soon as vaccine trials started.
As early as April, posts popped up on social media claiming that one of the first participants in vaccine trials carried out by AstraZeneca and Oxford University died after receiving a dose. She did not. It was also not even clear whether, as a random trial participant, she’d received a dose of the vaccine, or the placebo. Over the spring and summer, clearly bogus claims also cropped up of COVID-19 vaccines killing people in Guinea, kids in Senegal, and four children in some unspecified part of the world.
Anti-vaxxers tend to home in on hand-wringing that draws on kernels of established truth. So utterly baseless death claims took a backseat this spring and summer to hemming and hawing about Moderna and Pfizer’s use of novel mRNA vaccination techniques, which were in fact unproven technologies; some anti-vaxxers claimed they could somehow mutate humans. That shifted over the last month to fearmongering about paralysis risks linked to the Pfizer vaccine, sparked when a few people developed Bell’s palsy post-jab. (Bell’s palsy is usually a temporary condition, and those cases have not actually been firmly linked to vaccinations.)
However, in the run-up to the FDA authorization of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, stories about allergic reactions in trial participants, and about deaths during trials, combined to fuel a fresh wave of highly concentrated fearmongering. The facts: Two people who received Pfizer’s vaccine and six people who received Moderna’s died during their respective trials. However, they all appeared to die of entirely unrelated causes.
In recent days, anti-vaxxers have also jumped on the aforementioned CDC report, which noted that, out of over 110,000 Pfizer vaccine doses they had examined as of Dec. 18, over 3,000 people had reactions that left them “unable to perform normal daily activities.” Anti-vaxxers have suggested that this proves the reaction risks associated with the vaccines are incredibly dangerous—and will cause more death than COVID-19, which has killed at least 330,000 Americans.
The CDC did not respond to a request for comment about this report or anti-vaxxer readings of it. However, Hotez noted that those 3,000-plus reactions likely consisted overwhelmingly of low-grade fever symptoms and other mild and normal vaccine reactions.
Jonathan Berman, a doctor at the New York Institute of Technology who has studied anti-vaxxer communities, told The Daily Beast that once anti-vaxxers hook onto a theory, they start to engage in “what I call anomaly hunting.” Basically, like most other conspiracy theorists, rather than scrutinize and test a hypothesis, they go out solely in search of, and start to promote, facts and narratives that support their idea.
As soon as people started raising focused concerns about vaccine reaction deaths, the hunt for cases was on.
By the third week of December, anti-vaxxers found and frantically started sharing screenshots of a Facebook chat from someone claiming their aunt, a nurse in Alabama, had died within a day of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. These posts contained no verifiable details.
Still, on Dec. 16, the Alabama Public Health Department called every hospital in the state and verified that this story was not true. But this just led the story to mutate in circles hungry for proof of their doubts and convictions, with new narratives arguing that the nurse in question was just from Alabama and was in fact working in South Carolina when she died. Or that the story was actually about a nurse in Arizona and someone made a typo in a message. They insisted their hunts had yielded rich, red meat.
Health officials in Arizona and South Carolina told The Daily Beast they have not recorded anyone dying after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination.
“When you don’t have much to go on, you try to hang on to any little piece of support for your narrative that you can,” Hotez explained of the persistence of this rumor. “You blow it up.”
In recent days, anti-vaxxers on the hunt for evidence of their hunches have surfaced several other rumors along the same lines. Most notably, on Dec. 17, Nurse Tiffany Dover at CHI Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee, got a vaccine dose at work, then fainted 17 minutes later—all while on camera. She explained that she sometimes faints as a reaction to pain, a vasovagal syncope response that is not uncommon, or dangerous.
“But it made for a dramatic video,” Berman noted, which anti-vaxxers ravenous for proof of danger could point to, claiming she was lying and had actually had some kind of dangerous reaction.
“People tend to believe their eyes, and seeing someone faint is scary. It gives you a visceral gut reaction,” Berman said. For anti-vaxxers selling a point, “that’s a powerful tool.”
So anti-vaxxers started following Dover online, searching for any scrap of possible evidence that something bad had indeed happened to her. They claimed no one who faints when they get a shot could become a nurse, which is absurd. They claimed that the fact that she wasn’t posting on social media in the days following the shot was suspicious—all the while hounding her accounts for some sort of statement. And eventually they found a death certificate for someone with her name and age who lived in Higdon, Alabama, a 28-mile drive from Chattanooga, on a records search site.
Dover is not dead. On Saturday, her employer Tweeted that she was at home and well, but wanted to maintain her privacy. On Monday, they noted that she was working a shift, and showed a video of her and other staffers. A Tennessee public health official also told The Daily Beast that they had no records of anyone who received a COVID-19 vaccine in the state dying for any vaccine-related reason.
Hardcore anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists on the hunt for proof of their convictions, however, “don’t want this tool taken away,” Berman noted. So, rather than back down on Dover, the first named death they’ve tried to claim with some persistence, they have instead said that they won’t believe she’s alive until she makes a statement with proof of time and date herself. They have also said they won’t believe her if she says she’s fine, suspecting she’s been paid off. And many of them firmly believe that the video of her at work is either a deep fake add-in or a body double.
“Tiffany Dover’s hair is a different shade and thickness, folded differently on her head, covered mouth, and you can’t see her ice blue eyes,” a post on Telegram, critiquing the Monday video, argued. “They pushed the crisis actor to the front [of the group of nurses in the video,] too.”
“This is further proof of the cover up of Tiffany Dover’s death… The vaccinations kill.”
None of the experts The Daily Beast canvassed could trace the origins of these claims, and established vaccine-skeptical groups say they don’t know where they’re coming from either. Some of those groups, according to one recent report, are apparently actively plotting social-media campaigns to hype up the side effects of vaccines and steer people away from them. But not even they have recorded or promoted any vaccine death claims, although they are open to the idea that these jabs could prove lethal.
Rita Shreffler of the Robert F. Kennedy Jr.-helmed Children’s Health Defense, for one, told The Daily Beast that they “believe the rumor about Tiffany’s death is disinformation. We do not know where it is coming from. We squelch it whenever we see it.”
Gorski believes that the hunt for and proliferation of COVID-19 vaccine-caused death stories is just getting started, and will heat up as the vaccine reaches the wider population.
That’s deeply troubling, because even people who usually trust in vaccines are afraid right now, thanks to the rapid and heavily politicized development of the Moderna and Pfizer products. That fear and instability, Berman argued, leaves millions of Americans susceptible to conspiracy theories that they might otherwise ignore.
This is why, Berman said, we need to do more to acknowledge this growing type of misinformation and meet it with convincing messaging that reflects and reinforces actual reality, and “that reaches people before they go down conspiracy rabbit holes.”
Convincing them of the safety of the vaccine once they’ve taken the plunge is a lot harder.