On Wednesday night Fox News host Tucker Carlson told millions of people the government may be concealing the true risks of the COVID-19 vaccines and even implied the vaccines were directly responsible for thousands of deaths.
Doctors and public health experts are understandably pissed.
Carlson devoted an entire segment of Wednesday’s show to questioning the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines, which were authorized for emergency use last year. Since then, 83 percent of people older than 65 and nearly 150 million Americans in total have received at least one dose of one of the vaccines, according to CDC data.
In his effort to undermine that vaccination effort, Carlson cited the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a database operated by the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “to continually monitor reports to determine whether any vaccine or vaccine lot has a higher than expected rate of events.”
Whereas 203 people died after receiving the flu vaccine in 2019, Carlson said, more than 3,000 people have died since December after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. (CDC data says 3,292 people who received the COVID-19 vaccine have died between December 2020 and April; Carlson said it’s 3,362, though it’s unclear what data criteria he used.)
“It’s clear that what is happening now, for whatever reason, is not even close to normal,” Carlson said. “It’s not even close to what we’ve seen in previous years with previous vaccines.”
Carlson is arguably the most influential media personality in the country, topping cable news show ratings with nearly three million viewers on average last week, according to Nielsen data. This sort of attention has made him a Limbaugh-like influence in the new Republican Party, whose base has proven to be much more unwilling to get the vaccine than the national average, posing a significant challenge to efforts to attain herd immunity against the coronavirus through vaccination.
In a recent Kaiser poll, for example, 13 percent of Americans said they didn’t want a COVID vaccine, but self-identified Republicans were more than twice as likely to reject it, while a whopping 35 percent of Republican men said they wouldn’t get a vaccine.
What Carlson left out in this segment, however, is that the VAERS data comes with many caveats.
“When reporting and evaluating data from VAERS, it is important to note that for any reported event, no cause and effect relationship has been established,” according to a VAERS data user manual published by the Department of Health and Human Services. “The event may have been related to an underlying disease or condition, to medications being taken concurrently, or may have occurred by chance.”
CDC guidance updated on April 27 also specifically addresses this, clarifying that VAERS reports “of death following vaccination do not necessarily mean the vaccine caused the death.”
Radheep Shankar, a radiologist and contributor to the conservative National Review, highlighted Carlson’s comments on Twitter and pointed out that if you get any vaccine and die of something unrelated, such as a heart attack, “your death would be in VAERS.”
“Vaccinating hundreds of millions of people means that, by random probability, some people WILL DIE, and it has no relationship to the vaccine,” Shankar said, adding in another tweet that Carlson’s segment was “nonsense. But again, gullible people will believe these things, because the math and science isn't exactly crystal clear.”
Craig Spencer, the director of Global Health in Emergency Medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, also pointed out that high-risk populations such as the elderly were granted access to the vaccine first, “the same people whose risk of dying was actually just kinda high at baseline.”
Spencer said that in reality, the death rate among populations such as nursing home residents—who account for nearly a third of all COVID-19 deaths in the United States since the start of the pandemic—“dropped precipitously” after the vaccine was approved and elderly people began to get vaccinated.
“Your nightly lying and spreading of disinformation is responsible for more deaths than you attribute to the vaccine,” Spencer said in a message to Carlson.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and CNN medical correspondent, echoed that sentiment Thursday, calling Carlson’s segment “so reckless, so dangerous what he’s doing… I can’t tell with him, whether if he’s just so smart or so dumb.”
“We could be in much better position if it were not for people like Tucker Carlson who continue to embolden this vaccine hesitancy,” Gupta said. “It's really very irritating.”