NFL safety Damar Hamlin is in critical condition after suffering a cardiac arrest during a game on Monday, Jan. 2, spurring unsubstantiated claims that his medical emergency could be tied to the COVID-19 vaccine.
Several people on Twitter shared a graph that allegedly shows 1,616 cardiac arrests among athletes since the coronavirus pandemic began, with 1,114 athletes who died, following COVID-19 vaccination.
The graph comes from an online article that claims to list each of the athletes who suffered cardiac arrest or other “serious issues” after they received the COVID-19 vaccine.
“While it is possible this can happen to people who did not get a COVID vaccine, the sheer numbers clearly point to the only obvious cause,” the article says.
Does the online graph represent athlete deaths tied to the COVID-19 vaccine?
- Analysis of causes of death for current and former athletes listed on Goodsciencing.com
- Payal Kohli, M.D., assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Colorado in the Department of Cardiology and founder of Cherry Creek Heart
- Jeffrey Morris, Ph.D., director of biostatistics for the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine
- Study published by the Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center in 2016
- Study on myocarditis in coronavirus infection vs. vaccination published in August 2022
The graph and associated online data are misleading. There’s no evidence tying athlete cardiac arrests and the subsequent deaths listed to the COVID-19 vaccine.
Some of the deaths included don’t meet the website’s own definition of an athlete, while others were attributed to factors such as cancer or heatstroke – not cardiac arrest or the COVID-19 vaccine.
WHAT WE FOUND
People who have shared the graph online claim that it shows a comparison between athlete collapses, deaths and the COVID-19 vaccine, but there are several reasons why the data is flawed.
The graph uses data from a post on goodsciencing.com, which is run by anonymous authors who claim to be “truth seekers.” That post lists incidents the website claims are athletes collapsing or dying from cardiac problems or other serious medical issues related to the COVID-19 vaccine, linking to news articles about individual cases.
The list is not based on academic research or public health data. Instead, it’s a manually compiled list of media reports which the author says they found from “research” and reader submissions.
In many of the reports there was no indication whether a person included on the list received the COVID-19 vaccine. The list links off to news reports about the deaths, which often do not include information about vaccination status.
In addition, the site’s definition of “athlete” is not a professional athlete or even a college or high-school athlete. Instead, the site defines an athlete as a person who “is reasonably fit, healthy and does some athletic activity, rather than an ‘unfit couch potato.’”
Even with that broad definition, many of the people listed don’t meet the website’s criteria of an athlete. Some of the deaths were among senior citizens in their 80s, or people who were experiencing a prolonged illness.
One example is MLB legend Hank Aaron, who died of natural causes at 86 years old in January 2021. While the baseball star did receive the COVID-19 vaccine several weeks prior, the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office said there is no indication it was a contributing factor in his death.
Mississippi State University's head football coach Mike Leach died in December 2022 at 61 years old due to complications from a heart condition.
Some of the people included on the list also died from COVID-19 itself, not the vaccine. Azorean “Zo” Tatum, a 16-year-old high school football player in Tennessee who is included on the list, died from the virus at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in August 2021, VERIFY partner station ABC24 reported.
Some of the others listed died from cancer or other causes such as heatstroke, not cardiac arrest or other medical issues that could be tied to the vaccine.
Here are several examples:
- Nine-year-old Ayla Loseth died from sepsis due to a Strep A infection in November 2022, family members told media outlets. Goodsciencing.com lists her cause of death as "sepsis from Strep A."
- Dallas Cowboys running back Marion Barber III died of a heat stroke in June 2022, not from cardiac arrest, VERIFY partner station WFAA reported. Goodsciencing.com lists his cause of death as “unknown.”
- Dwight Garner, a former football player for the University of California, Berkeley, died at 58 years old from prostate cancer, which Goodsciencing.com notes.
- Mixed martial arts fighter Anthony Johnson, 38, died in November 2022 following a prolonged illness. Some media outlets attributed Johnson’s death to complications from cancer, which Goodsciencing.com notes.
Is there a connection between cardiac deaths and the COVID-19 vaccine?
The article and social media posts suggest it is abnormal for athletes, including many young people, to suffer from cardiac arrest or die while playing sports.
But this isn’t a new phenomenon and occurred long before the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.
More from VERIFY: No, Sudden Adult Death Syndrome is not linked to vaccines
A 2016 study published by the Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center found that sudden cardiac death (SCD) is the most frequent medical cause of sudden death in athletes. Based on estimates at that time, the incident rate was around 1 in 40,000 to 1 in 80,000 athletes per year.
“We've had athletes collapse on the field for decades – long before COVID even existed and definitely long before the COVID vaccine,” Payal Kohli, M.D., a cardiologist and professor of medicine, told VERIFY. “So to attribute this background rate of cardiac arrest that is occurring in athletes to the COVID vaccine is really connecting two dots that are completely unrelated.”
Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), particularly sudden arrhythmic death (SAD), “occurs at a substantial background rate in the population, even among children and young people,” Jeffrey Morris, Ph.D., director of biostatistics for the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, said.
There are approximately 1,000 cases of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests every day in the United States, according to estimates from the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation.
Myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart wall, can occur in rare cases following vaccination. In severe cases, it can lead to stroke, heart attack, heart failure or death, the American Heart Association says.
But medical experts say the risk of myocarditis is far higher in people infected with the coronavirus than those who receive the vaccine.
While there have been reported cases of myocarditis from COVID-19 infection and the vaccine, a study published in August 2022 found that the risk of myocarditis in people infected with the coronavirus was more than seven times higher compared to people who were vaccinated.
“I worry much more about the infection itself setting you up to have some kind of an arrhythmia or collapse, especially during competitive sports, rather than the vaccine,” Kohli said.
While athletes sometimes experience sudden cardiac arrest, there’s no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine increased the odds of that happening.