If someone becomes sick or dies after getting a COVID-19 vaccine, is the shot necessarily to blame? No, that's not true: It is statistically inevitable that some people will get sick and die after getting the shot, for reasons that are unrelated to their body's response to the vaccine. People die every day of everything from heart attacks to cancer. The vaccine will not prevent those deaths. The hope with the COVID-19 vaccine is that it will lower the number of people who contract the disease, which will thereby decrease the number of additional illnesses and deaths.
Let's take a look at some statistics.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2,854,838 people died in the United States in 2019 -- that's a rate of some 869.7 deaths per 100,000 population. The leading causes of death were listed as heart disease (659,041 deaths), cancer (599,601 deaths), accidents (173,040 deaths) and chronic lower respiratory diseases (156,979 deaths).
Deaths of those causes are unrelated to whether or not someone gets a COVID-19 vaccine. They will occur regardless.
Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, spoke about this issue at length during his weekly podcast, "The Osterholm Update: COVID-19." He warned about the risk of drawing the wrong conclusion. He said:
Imagine, whatever the cause was, John Doe gets vaccinated Wednesday afternoon. He's dead Thursday morning. Do you think people are not going to draw some comparison to this? We're not prepared for this at all, and now is the time we have to help people understand that these events will occur.
Osterholm also said:
This should not be unexpected. If you vaccinate a group of individuals, particularly a large group of adults, you're going to start seeing these health consequences occur -- but not related to the vaccine, just related to life.
He gave examples looking at the numbers of people in certain age groups who die of heart attacks and strokes. He also considered all-cause mortality, saying:
Again, nothing to do with the vaccine, just what you'd expect to see in the period of one week following vaccination of 10 million people, you'd expect to see, for 35-44-year olds, 751 dying; for 45-54-year olds, 1,705 dying; and if you looked at 55-64-year olds, 3,429 dying.
Correlation Does Not Imply Causation
A certain number of people can be expected to die in any given week, for any given reason. Assuming that a particular death or illness is caused by the vaccine because it was administered just before someone got sick is an example of a logical fallacy. The fact that one event precedes the other does not necessarily mean that the first event caused the second. Correlation and causation are not the same thing.
Obviously, as people get older, their chance of dying increases. That's true regardless of the vaccine. The hope with the shot is that it will lower the number of people who contract the disease and thereby decrease the number of additional illnesses and deaths.
Reports of patients who died after getting the COVID-19 vaccine have attracted international attention. In Norway, for example, at least 23 deaths were reported. According to the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH), a large proportion of the people who were offered vaccination first were the elderly, as they are the most vulnerable. In a statement, Dr. Sara Viksmoen Watle, senior physician at the NIPH, urged caution. She said:
In order to be able to interpret this information, it is important to see the full picture. Nursing home residents are at very high risk of a severe disease course or dying from COVID-19, and have therefore been prioritised for vaccination. A large proportion of those who live in nursing homes have severe underlying conditions or are in the last stages of life. Life expectancy in nursing homes is relatively short and on average, more than 300 people die in Norwegian nursing homes every week.
When we vaccinate the eldest and sickest who often have several underlying conditions, we expect high mortality in this population. Hence, we also expect deaths following vaccination. We do not yet know if these deaths are due to the vaccine or other causes, but we cannot exclude that common side effects may have led to a more severe course for some patients. The 23 deaths occurred within six days after vaccination. We will examine these events in relation to the expected number of deaths among the nursing home populations. The Norwegian Medicines Agency and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health are now carrying out in-depth analyses. So far, there are no statistical analyses that indicate that coronavirus vaccination has had an increased risk of death among those vaccinated.
She said that most patients experienced little to no side effects. That's not to say, of course, that the vaccine has no side effects -- nor that reported deaths need not be investigated.
Again, here's Osterholm from the University of Minnesota:
I don't want to say that something couldn't happen. I want to be really clear about that ... I have no reason to believe that there will be a serious outcome, but in fact each one will be investigated.
In the U.S., public health authorities are looking into at least one death: that of a Florida doctor who died from an unusual blood disorder after receiving the shot. They have also reported at least 21 cases of anaphylaxis, "a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction that occurs rarely after vaccination."
Common side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine include pain, swelling, fever, chills, tiredness and headache. Although they may affect your ability to do daily activities, they should go away in a few days.