An Antivax Dog Whistle Goes Viral

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Lizzie O’Leary: Welcome back to.

Bill: Cincinnati, where medical personnel have been working on Bill.

Lizzie O’Leary: Safety DeMar Hamlin For the last.

Bill: 9 minutes. Hamlin made a hit. He got up, took a couple of steps, and then just fell to the ground.

Lizzie O’Leary: We don’t know when DeMar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed on the field during an NFL game three weeks ago. Epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina quickly turned on her TV, partly because she’s a football fan and she was worried, but partly because she knew what was coming next. A lot of Caitlin’s work right now is focused on COVID misinformation, and lately that’s meant fighting the idea that COVID vaccines are linked to sudden deaths among young people. How quickly did you realize after that happened that. Things were going to start popping up on social media about what had happened to him.

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Speaker 3: I knew right away, I mean, this has been a constant theme throughout the pandemic, but so much more recently in the past month or two. One of my colleague’s husbands died over at the World Cup about a week before this incident. And so it was on the top of my mind and obviously on the top of many disinformation campaigns as well.

Lizzie O’Leary: Soccer journalist Grant Wall, who Caitlin’s referring to, died from a ruptured aortic aneurysm. Full disclosure Grant was someone I considered a friend. Grant’s wife, Dr. Celine Gounder, has been resolute in making clear that his death had nothing to do with COVID vaccination. But I think what you’re seeing is this pattern of vaccine skeptics who are saying, oh, look at these young, healthy people. It must be COVID vaccines. And that is simply not the case. But that didn’t stop conspiracy theorists and anti-vax activists from there just asking questions routine about what happened to Grant or DeMar Hamlin or other young people who’ve died recently. And often when you see this question pop up on social media. It includes the phrase died suddenly. So can you.

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Speaker 3: Really believe that they.

Lizzie O’Leary: Took.

Speaker 3: That pole?

Lizzie O’Leary: Or was this sudden death.

Speaker 3: Syndrome.

Lizzie O’Leary: For the American.

Speaker 3: People.

Lizzie O’Leary: To eliminate population? Today on the show, the rise of the viral dog whistle died suddenly. It’s a case study in misinformation and why it sticks. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next, TBD. A show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stay with us.

Lizzie O’Leary: Died suddenly is both a buzzy phrase in the Antivax world and the name of a movie. It’s a documentary, and I’m using that word in really big air quotes that claims COVID vaccines cause blood clots, which lead to sudden death. Marjorie Taylor GREENE has tweeted about it, and it’s been watched at least 12 million times on the alternative video site Rumble. The movie has a Twitter account that tweets stories of sudden deaths alongside a shot emoji. One of the reasons that I wanted to talk to Caitlin is that she recently wrote an analysis that fact check the rumors around sudden deaths and COVID vaccines.

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Speaker 3: I have not watched the whole thing through and through. I watched enough to understand where the claims were coming. What may be kind of the kernels of truth and how to combat them.

Lizzie O’Leary: One of these kind of themes that seems to come through again and again, either when you’re talking about this, this movie, or if you see some of these testimonies on social media is is something about blood clots. Could you unpack that for me a little bit?

Speaker 3: If anyone makes a claim that people are dying suddenly, they have to have a reason, an explanation for that. And so there’s video really blamed blood clots. And in the video they showed, quote unquote, evidence of many images of blood clots being removed from blood vessels of cadavers.

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Speaker 3: However, it failed to mention that it’s actually totally normal for a blood clot after death, regardless if they had COVID or not. And they also showed images of blood clots being removed from vessels in the lungs. It’s called pulmonary embolism and suggesting that the clot was caused by the vaccine. But after doing a little digging, it was clear that this footage was actually stolen from a 2019 medical education video, which is important because COVID 19 vaccines did not exist in 2019. There’s really no backing to their claims.

Lizzie O’Leary: In your latest newsletter, you had a heading that said Deaths by Vaccination Status. It’s not even close. I wonder if you could tell me what the data shows.

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Speaker 3: Yeah. So, you know, underlying all these rumors is the belief that COVID 19 vaccines are harmful and an intention to possibly depopulate the planet. And if that had any merit, we would expect those who are vaccinated are more likely to die than those who are unvaccinated. And we are clearly seeing the opposite. The U.K. CDC basically released data evaluating all deaths. So car accidents, strokes, COVID 19 by vaccination status. And there they have the ability to do this, unlike the United States, because they have a national health care system.

Speaker 3: So this is really powerful because it doesn’t matter what caused the death. We’re just looking at deaths overall. And when you visually display that on a graph, there is a clear distinction between the unvaccinated dying of whatever cause much higher than the vaccinated, leading to confirm that vaccines continue to save lives.

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Lizzie O’Leary: How big a dataset are we talking about? Because one of the things that I find fascinating as a layperson following this is just that now that we are in 2023, there is a tremendous amount of data available to people like you to be able to look at. Who has died and how.

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Speaker 3: It’s right. We have more evidence than any other vaccine or any other disease in the history of humans that the benefits of COVID 19 vaccines, particularly around mortality, continue to greatly outweigh the risks. We have never had so much coordination or teamwork. All hands on deck looking at one thing. And it’s it’s it’s so clear. And I think that’s what’s most frustrating for scientists talking about this, because it is clear to us and it’s hard to refute baseless claims with evidence and data.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Has that taken a toll on you? That’s got to be exhausting.

Speaker 3: Yeah, it is exhausting. It’s incredibly exhausting. And it’s, quite frankly, dangerous. I’ve had many death threats, many sexual death threat, you know, many different types of things. But I think it’s also equally important because while there are these people on the fringe, there are legitimate questions that people have and legitimate concerns. And I want to believe that the vast majority of people just are trying to find answers to their questions. And I try to approach that in a place of empathy.

Lizzie O’Leary: One thing I really wanted to know from Caitlin is what makes people primed to believe rumors like the ones that link COVID vaccines and these sudden high profile deaths.

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Speaker 3: Well, for one, there is a ton of personal stories out there of death after vaccination, and they are lived experiences. They’re painful. They’re very they’re stories that we need to hear. And, you know, they’re even more painful to experience. And when we have a virus that touches literally every single person on this planet, the odds of something happening that’s not causally linked to the vaccine, it’s hard for people to see that preventable death is hard to show. And we need to do better at communicating that from a scientific perspective as well.

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Lizzie O’Leary: You wrote about something called the Post Hoc Fallacy, and I feel like it dovetails with what you’re talking about here. I wonder if you could explain that a little bit.

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Speaker 3: The post hoc fallacy basically means that in reality, even if everyone got a placebo vaccine, so just a, you know, saltwater vaccine, these stories of sudden deaths are statistically bound to happen. So even if everyone had gotten a placebo shot, there would still be deaths after that shot. And in order for there to be no deaths after vaccination, so no car accidents, no dog bites, whatever, that vaccine would not only have to be proven to be safe, but actually to prevent all deaths from every cause. And that’s not the purpose of vaccines. And so a lot of people get caught up in this post hoc fallacy, and it confuses a lot of people when it comes to vaccines.

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Lizzie O’Leary: The thing happened after the vaccine. Therefore, it must be because of the vaccine.

Speaker 3: Right. It’s this is this idea in epidemiology that correlation does not equal causation. There is this famous example about ice cream sales and drownings that they’re correlated. But eating ice cream doesn’t mean you’re going to drown. There’s a confounder there. And there’s another reason why that’s happening. And that other reason with COVID and vaccines in the United States is a pandemic, a very lethal virus that has run havoc in our society.

Lizzie O’Leary: I’ve really been wondering if there’s something about the way we communicate on social media that makes these theories that have like a whiff of scientific language or a whiff of statistics, makes them somehow primed to be more easily digested online, like they’ve got a screenshot of a graph, or there is, you know, maybe a misrepresented percent change in their like, I wonder what it is about that kind of thing that seems to travel so broadly online.

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Speaker 3: There have been studies that if false information travels faster six times faster than true information on social media. And there’s many reasons for this. One is speed is key, right? Rumors are lies spread before the truth can get its pants on. And filling the information void quickly is something that becomes very viral. So, for example, take that NFL tragedy. There was no information about what happened and they took very quickly advantage of it. Same with Grant’s death. As well.

Speaker 3: Another tactic that’s used is failed to provide context. Vaccine rumors are intentionally vague. For example, what vaccine? Which one? What’s the condition? And so because they are so intentionally vague, there’s different hypotheses that are blended together, allowing proponents to shift from one thing to the other. Another thing is a kernel of truth, right? Almost all vaccine rumors have a kernel of truth, something that is true but is then distorted or taken out of context or exaggerated. And so it’s usually within scientific terms that make it very difficult for the layman to separate what’s true and what’s not true. I mean, I can keep going, but there’s many tactics around these disinformation campaigns that are very calculated and very purposeful to ensure that that information spreads widely.

Lizzie O’Leary: When we come back, where public health has succeeded and failed at getting the message out. If you look at misinformation around COVID vaccines, you might find posts on social media saying such and such effect showed up on vapors. That’s a federal database, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. It’s an open system where anyone, you and me included, can report something that happened after a vaccine.

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Speaker 3: Yeah. So there’s is a a type of safety surveillance system and it’s passive, which means that it runs on an honor system. So usually doctors go in and type something in. If someone had an adverse event after a vaccine, not just COVID vaccines, there’s really anything that challenged with it, at least during the pandemic, is that it’s run on this honor system. It’s dependent on people providing accurate data, which people knowingly or unknowingly do. And because of this, there’s many disclaimers on this website, which is run by the CDC just saying that, you know, it’s possible that it’s incomplete or inaccurate and so various is imperfect. And that’s why we also have to have active surveillance systems to make sure that we can detect rare but true safety signals after vaccines.

Lizzie O’Leary: I heard a story that someone entered into shares that they became The Incredible Hulk.

Speaker 3: That’s that’s right. So the doctors submitted it and it was years ago a there’s a report to say, you know, my patient turned green. They had these incredible muscles. They are ripping through bricks just to show the vulnerability to people that what this honor system is dependent on. So with that explains this need to approach the data seriously. Right. Because there can be serious side effects from vaccines. But the importance of triangulating data and in understanding the comprehensive full story.

Lizzie O’Leary: And how are those tracked if there are serious side effects? Because there have been some.

Speaker 3: There have been some. Absolutely. So we do depend on bears, but we also look at other things. We rolled out this thing called V Safe CDC. I don’t know when you got your vaccine, if you got a text message and they check on you, you know, every other day and then every other week and then you get a text message six months later. And so that’s called active surveillance. And we CDC is actively looking for information. And there’s other things like hospital databases that they’ve been looking at in which hospital records have vaccine status, as well as, you know, medical records to to look at these signals. And they work you know, these these monitoring systems aren’t perfect, but they’re pretty darn good because they were actually able to find very rare but serious side effects quickly after a vaccine rollout during COVID 19. And I’ve actually been very impressed with our surveillance systems.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Is is that why, for example, the the Johnson Johnson vaccine basically is is not recommended now?

Speaker 3: That’s exactly right. So right after that JNJ vaccine, which is not an emerging vaccine, it we found very quickly it was linked to about four in 1 million chance of a fatal blood clot, a very specific type of fatal blood clot. And because of this true signal and actually, unfortunately, I think about nine deaths were linked to that blood clot, complications from the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. And because we have alternative vaccines, they stopped recommending Johnson and Johnson all together.

Lizzie O’Leary: You know, trying to step back and think about this over the sweep of the last three years, I think a lot of Americans of all different political stripes seem to feel like public health messaging can feel contradictory. Right. That the CDC guidance has shifted a lot. A lot of people feel ready to give up.

Lizzie O’Leary: And and when you as someone who thinks about epidemiology and communicating around public health, think about that. How do you approach that problem, that that that sort of sense of distrust or unease that feels like it’s only worsened recently?

Speaker 3: Yeah, I’ve been really disappointed about scientific communication, particularly from leadership, for the past three years. And I think that because of our lack of communication or lack of effective communication, it’s really set the stage for information, voids, for disinformation and for a lot of confusion during this infodemic, this overabundance of information.

Speaker 3: And so what I try to do, which seems to fairly work, is try and communicate uncertainty really clearly what we know and what we don’t know, and not only what we don’t know, but how we’re trying to answer what we don’t know, and bringing people along for the ride in this proactive sense of scientific discovery. And then there’s also there’s reactive communication, combating myths and disinformation, challenging those views and also listening to concerns so you can help address those concerns and help people make evidence based decisions. So I think there’s a lot that needs to be done, and I think we need to communicate from a place of empathy. I think we need to have faces and voices rather than ivory towers. We need to build the trust in public health or we’re going to have some much bigger problems.

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Lizzie O’Leary: While Americans may trust their own doctors. Confidence in medical science has slipped over the pandemic. Last February, a Pew poll showed that only 29% of U.S. adults have a great deal of confidence in medical scientists. That’s down from 40% in November of 2020. For Republicans, the numbers are even starker. Just 15% have a great deal of confidence in medical scientists, down from 30% in 2020.

Speaker 3: This is the nemesis of public health. Is that when it works, it’s invisible. This is very different than medicine. You can see the impact of a surgery. This is different than the drug industry. We can see the immediate impact of a prescription in public health. We don’t see what we prevented. How much do you appreciate what your seatbelt does every day? We don’t because we it’s hard to see what we prevented. And so I think that’s a challenge in communicating the value of public health.

Speaker 3: The other really big challenge with public health is that we are treating populations at a time we are treating millions at a time instead of one and one individuals. And that’s been really challenging in an increasingly individualistic society like the United States, where infectious diseases violate the assumption of independence, what you do as an individual directly impacts that person next to you. Unlike diabetes, unlike cancer, where if I’m sitting next to you on a bus, what you do doesn’t really matter. And so getting that perspective clearer and more direct has been incredibly challenging in this very political and polarized landscape.

Lizzie O’Leary: Are there places that are doing that well?

Speaker 3: I think a big case study that I continue to be amazed with, particularly around communication, is Vietnam. Their response? They set the stage very early for COVID. They framed it very nicely, you know, before the virus even arrived. Everyone knew what SARS-CoV-2 was. Everyone knew what they needed to do. And again, they framed it without we are all against the virus or not against each other. And that quick communication set the stage that we never really got in the United States.

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Lizzie O’Leary: But that’s a much smaller, more homogeneous population.

Speaker 3: It is much smaller. But I think that we can do it in the United States. I think that we can have public health campaigns like they did, which reached billions of people on tick tock. They had this continuous communication with text messages. They cracked down on misinformation, which is highly debatable right now. But they did a lot of things. And, you know, one of the reasons they were so successful in that communication aspect was because they failed miserably during SA’s the 2003 epidemic that they experienced.

Speaker 3: And what they did after that was they self reflected, they changed things on a systematic level. And so, you know, 20 years later, 15 years later, they were prepared for this new threat and it worked. And I’m really hoping that we do that in the United States. So we’re prepared for the next epidemic.

Lizzie O’Leary: Can we?

Speaker 3: We can. It’s a matter of, if we will. We need to get out of this cycle of neglect and panic. This is not a way to to live our lives. And we can do it. It’s just the implementation and the willpower. I have yet to see.

Lizzie O’Leary: What would have to happen, do you think, in order for the United States? To move toward something more like the Vietnam example you’re citing.

Speaker 3: I think that there needs to be systematic changes. We need to treat misinformation and disinformation as a disease, as a public health concern. We need surveillance systems. We need prevention strategies, We need interventions. We need to know where it’s spreading and why and how. We need the ivory towers to really change their culture around scientific communication. And I think that we need to strengthen these grass roots. You know, communication isn’t just a top down, it’s also a bottom up. And we need to strengthen these networks that we’ve created throughout the pandemic so we can alter it really quickly. If there is, for example, another monkeypox or another polio outbreak. And so we have our work cut out for us. Again, though, it’s yet to be determined if it will happen.

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Lizzie O’Leary: The day that we are talking. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, said state lawmakers should should make their penalties for companies that require all employees to get vaccination against COVID 19 and its. Assigned to me that the temperature around this stuff is not going down, that it’s becoming. More and more intense as we move toward what will be the 2024 presidential race, which is obviously starting already. Is there a way for people who do what you do? To to push through that.

Speaker 3: I want to believe that there is I was in Texas for three the three years of the pandemic. And one thing I’m really proud about my newsletter is that I have very, very conservative people that follow and very, very liberal. I think we need to approach scientific communication. Not through advocacy. You know, sitcom and advocacy are very different. And that’s hard for a lot of us to separate. And I think that if we do that, we can have really meaningful conversations. And there are conversations that are needed.

Speaker 3: Do the benefits of a Bivalent booster still outweigh the risks among young adults? I think that is a legitimate question. We just need to approach and answer that question fairly and scientifically. And so I do I think it’s going to take a lot of work. If we don’t, I’m very worried about where this could go with other vaccines. And I’m very worried that public health will be going backwards. So I have hope. But we’ll see.

Lizzie O’Leary: Katelyn Jetelina, Thank you so much for your time.

Speaker 3: Yeah, thank you for having me.

Lizzie O’Leary: Katelyn Jetelina is director of Population Health Analytics at the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, and she also writes the newsletter, your local epidemiologist. And that is it for our show today. What next? TBD is produced by Evan Campbell. It’s edited by Torrey Bosch. Alicia montgomery is vice president of Audio for Slate. TBD is part of the larger What Next Family. And we’re also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. And if you are a fan of the show, I have request for you. Join Slate. Plus. When you become a member, you get to listen to this show and all of your slate podcasts. Ad free. Just head on over to Slate.com slash what next? Plus, to sign up. We’ll be back on Sunday with another episode about a time I did something very, very stupid. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.