The White House COVID-19 task force has asked the Centers for Disease Control to conduct a comprehensive study on how many Americans have died since receiving the vaccine and the circumstances that led to their death, according to two officials familiar with the matter.
Officials aren’t concerned that the vaccine is having adverse effects on a large number of recipients. Instead, they are pushing for the study in order to ensure the federal government has a more complete picture of mortality in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal is to gather more data about the vaccine, its efficacy, and what happened to the recipients after they got the jab.
It’s an especially pressing issue, given the vulnerable and aging populations receiving the vaccine. According to the CDC, about 3 percent of 75-year-olds die within their next year of life. With millions of people receiving the vaccine, odds are some will die within a matter of weeks or months, for reasons that may or may not have anything to do with COVID-19. It’s also expected that some individuals who receive it will die in between the first and the second dose or after the regiment is completed, officials said, especially if they have a pre-existing illness that is advanced.
The White House coronavirus task force wants to know whether individuals who have received the shot died as the result of an adverse event linked to the vaccination, such as anaphylaxis, from a coronavirus-related illness such as pneumonia, or from something else entirely.
Currently, the CDC does not have a good way to track deaths that occur after vaccination in real time, officials said. The study would have to come from state health departments, many of whom are already overwhelmed with other data collection efforts related to COVID-19, including testing, case positivity, hospitalizations, and vaccine distribution.
The CDC has worked throughout the last year to reduce COVID-19 data reporting gaps but has struggled to collect timely information from some state health departments. The agency’s COVID mortality dataset—its information on how many suffered coronavirus-related deaths—is currently about five weeks behind, officials said. Its system for tracking vaccine complications is far from comprehensive. With 4,000 people dying per day and another million getting the COVID vaccine, such shortcomings and lags in data can present a particularly blurred picture. The agency is working on a 2020 mortality report analyzing coronavirus-related deaths in the first year of the pandemic. It is set to be released sometime in the spring, officials said, adding that there are no current plans to include vaccination data in the current CDC COVID-19 mortality analysis.
The struggle to find a way to complete the key vaccination mortality study highlights a growing frustration among officials working on the pandemic response that the federal government is still falling short in collecting, analyzing, and reporting of COVID-19 data. It also underscores the extent to which the federal government relies on often underfunded state health departments to accurately portray the reality on the ground.
The request for the study comes amid a push by the Biden administration to update and reform the way the federal government collects data on COVID-19 and how it transmits that data to the public. The president signed an executive order Jan. 21 ensuring the administration’s response to the pandemic is “guided by the best available science and data.”
Officials have in recent days discussed whether to keep the existing HHS Protect system, a platform through which the Department of Health and Human Services tracks how hospitals across the country were handling the surge in COVID-19 cases. The system, which is accessible to state and federal officials, tracks hospitals’ supplies, cases, and testing, among other things. Officials inside the CDC are also in the process of understanding and clearing up the discrepancies between the agency’s vaccination tracker and state vaccine distribution dashboards. The lack of accurate data has frustrated officials trying to improve the distribution process.
In addition, the White House this week released previously hidden COVID-19 reports that outline, among other things, each state’s outbreak, hospitalizations, and personal protective equipment supply. The data in those reports appears to be similar to the data collected by HHS Protect.
Healthcare workers are already submitting information to the CDC about patients who have died after vaccination through the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a platform run by the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration that detects potential vaccine safety issues. The VAERS data is based on submissions by health professionals who report “any significant health problem that occurs after vaccination.” Officials familiar with the system say the VAERS mortality data in those cases is usually linked to the vaccination, though the CDC says that an “adverse event can be reported even if it is uncertain or unlikely that the vaccine caused it.”
In an Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) meeting Wednesday, officials from the CDC’s COVID-19 Vaccine Safety Task Force presented preliminary data they have gathered through the VAERS system. (ACIP is a group of medical and public health experts that provides recommendations and public health guidance on the safe use of vaccines).
Slides posted on the CDC’s website shows the federal government has collected a total of more than 9,000 reports through the VAERS system since the COVID-19 vaccine rollout began—an incredibly small percentage of total vaccinations administered. Many of the reports indicate that individuals who have received the vaccine have experienced symptoms like dizziness, nausea, fatigue and chills. The data also shows that VAERS has collected 196 reports of death, though the slides note that the deaths reported to VAERS are not necessarily related to vaccination.