On the second day of the new year, millions watched as 24-year-old NFL player Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest after a tackle. While most fans’ primary concern was the young player’s health, some social media users jumped at the opportunity to cast the terrifying injury as a side effect of COVID-19 vaccines. In a rush of conjecture and conspiracy theories, posts implying that Hamlin was the latest victim of “deadly” COVID-19 vaccines went viral within minutes of his collapse.
What many watching that night didn’t realize was that this wasn’t new territory for vaccine opponents. Many have spent over a year insisting, without a shred of evidence, that COVID-19 vaccines are killing and injuring young athletes in alarming numbers. One of the main “sources” cited to support this claim is a blog post originally published in December 2021. The post includes a running list of athletes who allegedly died or were injured from COVID-19 vaccines.
As of January 30, the list contains 1,598 entries. That number includes both deaths and injuries, although it’s frequently cited online as “1,600 deaths.” Even now, weeks after Hamlin’s injury, posts claiming that 1,600 athletes have died or suffered cardiac arrest after COVID-19 vaccination regularly garner thousands of engagements. The dubious data point is frequently paired with a 2009 analysis of athlete deaths in the U.S. and a 2006 study of sudden deaths in athletes under 35. Unlike the blog post, both of these studies are peer-reviewed research that examines deaths and injuries among young athletes within specific, clearly defined metrics. Nevertheless, anti-vaxxers use the studies to claim that deaths among young athletes have skyrocketed because the number of entries in a blog post is higher than the number of verified deaths in two peer-reviewed studies.
There is no evidence that COVID-19 vaccines have increased deaths or sudden cardiac arrests among young athletes—or any other population. Large-scale studies in the U.S. and Israel and data from countries worldwide have found no evidence of widespread health issues in teens and young adults following vaccination. Dr. Jonathan Drezner, editor-in-chief of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, told FactCheck.org that there has been no increase in sudden cardiac arrests in athletes, dismissing the claim as “total misinformation.” The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research recorded 20 fatalities from any cause among football players at all levels in 2021, the same number of deaths recorded in 2017 and 2019. The only outlier in the last five years was 2020, when only nine deaths were recorded, likely due to a suspension of most organized sports because of the pandemic.
If COVID-19 vaccines were killing people, we would expect to see higher death rates in places with higher vaccination rates. In reality, we see the exact opposite. In the U.S., states with the lowest vaccination rates had all-cause mortality rates almost three times higher than those with the highest vaccination rates. That’s deaths from all causes, not just COVID-19. A massive study of 5.7 million people in Mexico found that vaccinated people of all ages had lower excess death rates than unvaccinated people. With respect to heart issues, patients with heart failure had lower rates of hospitalizations and deaths from all causes when vaccinated against COVID-19. Multiple studies have shown that COVID-19 infection puts young people at a significantly higher risk of heart complications than COVID-19 vaccination.
Part of what makes the blog’s list such a compelling source of misinformation is that it provides real-life examples of people who have died or suffered life-altering injuries, sometimes without any clear explanation. It’s not difficult to see how, with insufficient information and just the right amount of insinuation, people could be convinced that these deaths and injuries are somehow linked to vaccines.
But a casual glance at the list demonstrates an obvious issue: Many entries are neither deaths nor cardiac arrests. Over a quarter of the 957 entries added to the list last year are for people who didn’t die. Of the entries about actual deaths, there is no evidence that a single one is related to COVID-19 vaccines. In many cases, vaccination status is not known.
While the peer-reviewed studies were limited to athletes under 35 or 40 who died suddenly, the list includes athletes who were well over 40, including some in their 60s and 70s who hadn’t played sports in decades. Perhaps the most egregious example is the inclusion of Brazilian soccer legend Pelé. The 82-year-old’s death last year was not linked to vaccines but to colon cancer. As with Pelé’s death, many entries have a known non-vaccine-related cause of death. The creator of the list gets around this by ignoring or casting doubt on the official cause of death. For example, one entry lists Lars Tate, a 56-year-old former NFL player who died a month after being diagnosed with stage 3 esophageal cancer. This type of cancer is aggressive, typically incurable, and fatal in about 85 percent of cases. Still, the list suggests COVID-19 vaccines are responsible for Tate’s death.
Other deaths with clear, non-vaccine-related causes include suicide deaths and several accidents. There are at least a dozen deaths from cancer on the list. One entry describes acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive blood cancer, as a “possible vaccine side effect.” It is not.
The list also fails to take into account that countries rolled out COVID-19 vaccines at different times for different populations. In several cases, people on the list were ineligible to receive vaccines at the time of their injury or death. For example, a 16-year-old basketball player in Wisconsin collapsed on January 9, 2021, two and a half months before he was eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine in his state. A Danish soccer player who collapsed on the field in June 2021 is still on the list, despite his being unvaccinated at the time of the incident. These types of inconsistencies are present throughout the list.
Around two-thirds of teens and young adults in the U.S.—over 35 million people—are fully vaccinated. If there were widespread health issues in the vaccinated, we would know: not through anecdotes, viral videos, and dubiously sourced blog posts but through public health reports and peer-reviewed studies. To believe that young, vaccinated athletes are dropping dead by the hundreds, you would also have to believe that thousands of health professionals, scientists, epidemiologists, and family members and friends of the supposed victims are all lying to cover up vaccine deaths. Fortunately, we know that isn’t the case and that anti-vaccine advocates are wrong—just as they were wrong about Damar Hamlin’s certain death. The young athlete was released from the hospital nine days after the accident and continues his recovery at home.